Part Five, Questions of competency and criminal responsibility as a defense, and verdicts of not guilty by reason of insanity
In order for a defendant to be prosecuted it must be clear that he or she is competent to stand trial. Massachusetts law defines competency as the defendant being aware of the purpose of the legal proceedings, the roles of all the players in the court proceedings, and how such a proceeding is conducted. Most importantly, the defendant must be able to participate in his or her defense and be able to communicate effectively and assist his attorney in his defense.
If a judge determines that a defendant is incompetent to stand trial, the prosecutor can ask that the defendant be committed to a mental hospital. After a court hearing, if it is found that the defendant is mentally ill, and his or her release could result in serious harm, the defendant can be hospitalized with periodic reviews, for competency. Be sure to let the District Attorney’s Office know if you want to be notified of updates of such reviews.
If the court finds the defendant mentally ill and incompetent to stand trial, but not dangerous, the court may release the defendant back into the community. The court has no power to hold mentally ill defendants who are not considered dangerous to others.
The law states that the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender committed the crime and that he or she can be held responsible for his or her criminal behavior. Some defendants will argue that they are not “criminally responsible” for their behavior.
In order to prove that a defendant is not criminally responsible, the defense must prove four things:
• the defendant is suffering from a mental disease or defect
• such mental disease or defect existed at the time the crime was committed
• the defendant could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his/her act or conform his/her behavior to the law, AND
• a specific mental disease or defect results in the defendant’s inability to appreciate the wrongfulness of the act or conform the behavior to the law
Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity
If a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, that defendant is legally acquitted despite having committed the acts with which he or she has been charged. This result means that a judge or jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant understood that his or her acts were against the law, or had the ability to conform his or her conduct to the law because of mental defect or illness.
If the defendant in your case is arguing that he is not guilty by reason of insanity, the judge will order a commitment hearing to determine if the defendant is to be committed to a state mental hospital. The Victim Witness Advocate and Assistant District Attorney should talk with you about what this means for you and for the criminal case.
Defendants who have been civilly committed by the court to a mental hospital are in the custody of the state Department of Mental Health (DMH) or Bridgewater State Hospital, which is a facility of the Department of Correction. Male offenders who are committed to a mental health facility and require a high level of security are committed to Bridgewater State Hospital. Other offenders, including all females, are committed to DMH and are placed in locked secure facilities. In addition, offenders who have been committed to Bridgewater State Hospital may be transferred to a Department of Mental Health facility at any time after a judge determines that they are no longer in need of Bridgewater’s strict security.
Information regarding these offenders is deemed confidential by the Department of Mental Health and Bridgewater State Hospital unless it clearly impacts the victim’s safety and well-being. Therefore, victims in these cases do not have the same notification rights as they do in other cases. Speak to your Victim Witness Advocate about your rights in these cases and other steps you can take to keep yourself safe.
In Massachusetts, offenders found not guilty by reason of mental illness can be released once it is determined they no longer pose a likelihood of serious harm to themselves or others as a result of mental illness.
Massachusetts law requires licensed mental health professionals to warn and take precautions to protect any identified person, such as the victim in the original criminal case, if the offender makes an explicit threat during therapy or if the professional believes the offender has the ability to carry out those threats.
Prior to an offender’s discharge from a mental health facility, the facility must notify the court and the District Attorney’s Office that handled the case. Confidentiality laws prevent these facilities from notifying victims directly of an offender’s discharge. However, some District Attorneys’ Offices do have procedures for notifying victims in these cases. Speak to your Victim Witness Advocate about this possibility.