An Insanity Defense Is Not Always a Free Pass in a Criminal Case

On February 23, 2010, Bruco Eastwood returned to the Colorado middle school he attended as a boy. Unfortunately, he took a hunting rifle with him and opened fire on students as they were dismissed from their classrooms for the day. Two students were injured before teachers were able to tackle Eastwood and stop a potential massacre.

On October 6, 2011, a Colorado jury found Eastwood not guilty of attempted first-degree murder by reason of insanity-that he could not distinguish right from wrong. The verdict came after 11 days of in-court testimony and 14 hours of jury deliberations. Eastwood will stay in a state mental institution until he is found sane and non-threatening. At that point he'll be free to return to the community.

The jury did find Eastwood guilty of possessing a gun on school grounds, but his sentence could run concurrently with his institutionalization. Many people, especially the families of the victims, were highly frustrated that Eastwood gets to essentially walk away from trying to kill countless children.

Incompetence vs. Insanity

Two concepts often confused are competency and insanity. Competency to stand trial addresses whether the defendant is capable of understanding the charges against them and assisting his or her attorney in preparing a defense. A finding of incompetency merely stalls the court process, but does not stop it altogether. A defendant must be found competent before standing trial.

An insanity defense focuses on the defendant's state of mind at the time of the crime. U.S. jurisdictions are divided on the standard to be used in that determination. Twenty-six states use the "M'Naughten" rule, which basically asks if the defendant knew right from wrong. Twenty-two states follow the American Law Institute (ALI) rule, which looks at whether the defendant could or could not conform his or her conduct to the law because of a "mental disease or defect."

Colorado is one of 11 states that saddles the government with proving a criminal defendant was sane when the crime was committed instead of requiring the defense to prove insanity. Six other states let juries find defendants guilty but insane, requiring guilty parties to serve the balance of their sentence should they later be found sane. Three states (Utah, Montana and Idaho) have no insanity defense.

Mental competency and criminal insanity are difficult issues that require psychiatric and psychological evaluations, as well as strong legal arguments. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime and may need to pursue a guilty but insane defense or address competency, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation and your options.