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Mental Health & Criminal Defense

McCarter | East PLLC Oct. 25, 2022

Psychological help service.We’ve all seen movies or TV dramas of a courtroom case where the verdict comes back, “Not guilty by reason of insanity.” While this may make for an entertaining storyline, in reality, using mental health as a defense against a criminal charge is much more complex and challenging than what is depicted in fictionalized recreations.  

Tennessee law does indeed recognize “insanity” as an “affirmative defense,” but it does so with a few caveats and conditions that must be met by introducing “clear and convincing evidence.”  

If you or a loved one in or around Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has been charged with a crime for which you believe a mental health issue may offer a defense or mitigating factor, contact our criminal defense attorneys at McCarter | East PLLC. We understand Tennessee law and its requirements and will work with you to craft a defense that addresses all factors that can help achieve the best result possible.  

Our team at McCarter | East PLLC proudly serves clients in Berry Hill, and our office is only a few blocks from the courthouse in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.   

Common Mental Health Disorders and Criminal Defense 

Mental health professionals rely on the 20 chapters of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for their classifications of mental disorders. These chapters cover topics such as “bipolar and related disorders,” “depressive disorders,” “anxiety disorders,” “obsessive-compulsive disorders,” and more, including disorders that are related to substance abuse. 

In a criminal defense setting, the disorders that are often encountered and addressed include all of the above, and specifically schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, manic depression, paranoia, schizoaffective disorder, substance-abuse disorders, and what are known as “intermittent explosive disorder and oppositional defiance disorder,” and “Autism spectrum and symptoms” (formerly Asperger’s syndrome). 

Tennessee Law and the ‘Insanity’ Defense 

Tennessee Code 39-11-501(a), revised in 1995, states: “It is an affirmative defense to prosecution that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature or wrongfulness of the defendant's acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense. The defendant has the burden of proving the defense of insanity by clear and convincing evidence.” 

Notice how a mental illness or condition by itself does not constitute a defense, but it does if the condition renders the defendant “unable to appreciate the nature or wrongfulness” of what they did, and this can be shown through “clear and convincing evidence.” 

Section 39-11-501(b) goes on to specify that “any abnormality manifested only by repeated criminal or otherwise antisocial conduct” should be excluded from the definition of “mental disease or defect.”  And 39-11-501(c) goes on to exclude the testimony of expert witnesses, asserting the “ultimate issue is a matter of the trier of fact alone.” Though expert witnesses are seemingly barred by the code, in actual trial cases expert testimony is allowed. 

Mental Health as a Defense 

The law is clear on establishing and proving insanity as a defense against a criminal charge, but there is also the matter of the competency to stand trial. Tennessee Code 33-7-301 addresses the issue of the competency to stand trial, granting the judge presiding over the case the authority to order a mental evaluation upon request by the district attorney or defense attorney or at the judge’s own discretion. 

According to the code: “The evaluation shall be done by the community mental health center or licensed private practitioner designated by the commissioner to serve the court or, if the evaluation cannot be made by the center or the private practitioner, on an outpatient basis by the state hospital or the state-supported hospital designated by the commissioner to serve the court.” 

There are many clauses to the code, but if the defendant is found incompetent, treatment and hospitalization may be ordered. If no lack of competency is found, then the trial will proceed. The code allows for the issue of competence to be raised before the trial, during the trial, or after the trial – in post-conviction pleadings. 

Burden of Proof 

One of the modifications made to mounting an “affirmative defense” using insanity in the 1995 revision of the code was to add the mental-disease qualifier “severe” without defining what that exactly means. Nonetheless, a defense based on a mental disease or defect must show that the disease is severe. The most important requirement, however, is to prove that the defendant was unable to appreciate either the nature or the wrongfulness of their acts. 

According to the Tennessee Bar Association and its analysis of insanity as a defense, the defense’s burden of proof in establishing this is “exceptionally heavy.” Though the defense can offer expert testimony despite 39-11-501’s prohibition of expert witnesses, the “trier of fact” is not required to accept their testimony. 

In State v. Holder, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the trial court’s rejection of expert testimony and agreed with that court’s decision to rely “primarily upon the actions and words of the defendant before, at, and after the commission of the offense.” 

Legal Advocacy You Can Trust 

Though using a mental health disorder as a defense against a criminal charge might be an uphill battle, showing the defendant to have such a condition can lead pre-trial to a lessening of the charges, perhaps even a dismissal, and during and after trial to a mitigation of the sentencing measures.  

If you or a loved one is facing a criminal charge in Murfreesboro or Berry Hill, Tennessee, and you believe a mental condition bears on the charge being made, contact us at McCarter | East PLLC immediately. We will meet with you, discuss the circumstances leading to your arrest and criminal charge, and work together to build a strong defense, including every available element, including any mental health issue.