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The mental state of a criminal defendant can seriously affect the outcome of a criminal case. In fact, it can be determinative. Mental state is so important that the exact same action – killing another person, for example – can be one of several different types of homicide charge, or no crime at all, depending on the mental state of the person who killed another.

Often, mental state will be a necessary part of the prosecution’s case. The thoughts of the accused will be used as a weapon against the criminal defendant in front of a jury. Intent, wantonness, knowledge and recklessness will often be requirements for the prosecution to prove in order to obtain a conviction. But occasionally the mental state of my client can be used as a shield – a defense or mitigation to crime. That’s what our conversation is about today.

The classic and often heavily scrutinized example of using mental state as a shield is the “Insanity” defense. Essentially, the defense is that the criminally accused cannot be held responsible for their actions due to psychiatric illness. The first documentation of insanity as an exemption for criminal activity dates back to the Code of Hammurabi in 1750 BC. At least, I assume that’s correct. That may or may not be some stuff I just read on Wikipedia.*

In Kentucky, our standard for the Insanity defense is codified in KRS 504.020, and reads, “A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental illness or intellectual disability, he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.” Boiled down, it means that a person is “insane” for the purpose of eluding criminal responsibility if they are mentally ill or disabled, and they either 1) cannot understand that what they are doing is against the law, or 2) they are unable to control their actions. If an individual can prove they were insane at the time of the alleged criminal activity, they cannot be found guilty of a crime.**

“Incompetency” is different from “Insanity.” If a person is not insane for the purpose of criminal prosecution, it’s possible that they still may not be competent to stand trial (and vice versa). If you murder someone on Friday, and on Saturday you have an automobile accident that leaves you severely mentally handicapped, it’s very possible that you may have been completely sane for the purpose of criminal liability but incompetent to stand trial for those criminal actions. KRS 504.090 governs the incompetent, and states, “No defendant who is incompetent to stand trial shall be tried, convicted or sentenced so long as the incompetency continues.”

When medical professionals evaluate a person’s “Competency to stand trial” they take into account a lot of different factors, including understanding of the charges against them, appreciation of the penalties, appraisal of defenses, appraisal of the function of courtroom personnel, understanding of court procedure, ability to participate and assist in their defense, capacity to testify, and many more. If a Judge determines (after hearing the medical evidence) that a defendant is incompetent to stand trial, they must also determine whether the defendant is likely to regain competency (with treatment, medication, etc.). Assuming the defendant is incompetent and not likely to regain competency, the charges against them may be dismissed.***

If someone is sane, and also competent, that doesn’t mean that an agitated mental state at the time of the criminal conduct won’t be beneficial to their defense. If the crime alleged is murder or assault, the Defendant could have an “extreme emotional disturbance” (EED) defense. The classic example of this: “Man comes home from work to find wife in bed with Friend. Man flies into a rage and kills wife and friend.” This is textbook extreme emotional disturbance.

For a Murder charge, the prosecution needs to prove the LACK of extreme emotional disturbance. In the Murder statute, KRS 507.020, it states that a person is guilty of Murder when “(a) With intent to cause the death of another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person; except that in any prosecution a person shall not be guilty under this subsection if he acted under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse, the reasonableness of which is to be determined from the viewpoint of a person in the defendant’s situation under the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be. However, nothing contained in this section shall constitute a defense to a prosecution for or preclude a conviction of manslaughter in the first degree or any other crime[.]” So, if the prosecution cannot prove that someone intentionally committed murder WITHOUT the presence of EED, the defendant’s charge may be reduced to Manslaughter in the First Degree.

Concerning a charge of Assualt, the burden would be on the Defendant to establish EED as a defense. KRS 508.040 governs Assault under extreme emotional disturbance, and states, In any prosecution under KRS 508.010, 508.020 or 508.030 in which intentionally causing physical injury or serious physical injury is an element of the offense, the defendant may establish in mitigation that he acted under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance, as defined in subsection (1)(a) of KRS 507.020.”

Like the result in a homicide case, Assault committed under EED would reduce the severity of the crime committed. Specifically, an assault committed under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance is a Class D felony when it would constitute an assault in the first degree or an assault in the second degree if not committed under the influence of EED; or a Class B misdemeanor when it would constitute an assault in the fourth degree if not committed under the influence of EED.

In short, the mental state of someone who injures or kills another person in Kentucky can be absolutely crucial to their case. In some cases, it can make or break the prosecution’s case against them. Insanity, Incompetency, and Extreme Emotional Disturbance may be useful in defending a Homicide or Assault charge in Kentucky.

Homicide and Assault charges are extremely serious. In fact, they can be as serious as charges come in Kentucky. If you’re charged with Murder, Reckless Homicide, Manslaughter or Assault in Kentucky, call Murphy & Associates, PLC at 502-618-4949 for a free consultation with Attorney Greg Simms.

*It is.
**People who are not guilty by reason of insanity can still be sent to a mental institution by a judge.
***Again, there’s the possibility of involuntary commitment to a mental hospital.

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