From the Bench

  • Written by  Judge Bruce Winters

An often discussed aspect of criminal cases is the insanity defense and competency to stand trial. We have all watched television shows, read books, or heard a story about a criminal who beat the system, claimed insanity and walked out of the courtroom scot free. In reality, individuals who claim insanity or incompetency, rarely, if ever, walk out of court “scot free.” In the Ottawa County Common Pleas Court, as well as most other criminal courts, we are presented with two separate standards and defenses.

First is the “insanity” defense, or Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity (NGRI). Basically, the concept of NGRI holds that a person is not guilty if he or she did not know of the wrongfulness of his/her actions due to severe mental disease or defect. This is something that the Defendant must prove. In most cases, the Defendant is evaluated by mental health professionals to determine whether or not the standard has been met. Often times the Prosecution and the Defense will each have expert witnesses with conflicting opinions on whether or not the Defendant is NGRI. Insanity deals only with the Defendant’s mental state at the time the crime was committed.

On the other hand, competency to stand trial deals with the Defendant’s mental state at the time of trial, not at the time the crime was committed. If it can be shown that the Defendant is incapable of understanding the nature and objective of the trial, he must be found incompetent to stand trial. In this case as in the insanity defense, the Defendant must be evaluated by a mental health professional that will render an opinion as to competency. The Court then holds a hearing on competency and makes the final determination.

One of the major fallacies surrounding NGRI and competency is that once a Defendant is successful in presenting either defense, that the Defendant goes free. When dealing with a successful NGRI Defense, the Defendant will likely be incarcerated at a secure mental health facility for treatment. The duration and type of treatment that the Defendant receives is fact specific, but can last for an indefinite period of time. It has been my experience that Defendants who are found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity spend the rest of their lives incarcerated in a mental health facility.

Incompetence to stand trial is not really a defense, but it only serves to delay the trial. A Defendant whom has been found incompetent will remain under the jurisdiction of the Court while receiving mental health treatment. After receiving a course of mental health treatment, the Defendant will be reevaluated to determine if he/she is now competent to stand trial. The treatment/reevaluation phase can occur several times. If the Defendant is found to be competent after treatment, the trial will proceed as normal. If a Defendant is still incompetent after mental health treatment, the Court then has various options. First, if the offense is a serious (felony 1 or felony 2) offense or a violent offense, the Court can continue to exercise its jurisdiction of the Defendant and he/she shall remain incarcerated in a mental health facility until competency can be established. The incarceration period for these offenses can be indefinite. For lesser, non-violent felony offenses, the Common Pleas Court can dismiss the case and refer the Defendant to the Probate Court for involuntary commitment in a mental health facility.

As you can see, a Defendant found to be not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial is not simply released back into the public with no punishment. It is possible for the NGRI or Incompetent Defendant to spend more time detained or incarcerated than a Defendant who has been found guilty. Although NGRI and Competency are often the subject of discussion, they are rarely utilized. Request for NGRI/Competency Evaluations occur in less than 2% of our cases historically. I have served as the Judge of the Ottawa County Common Pleas Court for the past four years and have not yet had an individual found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity or an individual declared incompetent to stand trial. The fact that there have been no successful NGRI/Competency Defenses in the past four years does not mean there are no mental health issues surrounding criminal Defendants. The fact remains that mental health problems are very prevalent in the Defendants who appear before me. Mental health problems, coupled with substance abuse, are the two most shared characteristics of the criminal Defendants who are charged with a crime in the Common Pleas Court. Mental health/substance abuse problems and the unique issues that they present the Court and Criminal Justice system will be a topic for a future article. 

Remember, if you have any questions or would like to learn more about a topic, feel free to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. But remember, I can’t comment or discuss the specifics of any cases.

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