Washington Law Review

Article Title

Criminal Insanity


Mental capacity becomes relevant to the criminal law as soon as a peace officer apprehends a person who has committed an anti-social act. Policemen, and later prosecutors, must decide whether the offender is "well" (sane), responsible for his acts, and the proper subject of criminal proceedings or whether he is "sick" (insane), not responsible for his acts, and the proper subject of civil commitment or similar process. These are threshhold questions in criminal law enforcement. If criminal processes are used, then the trial stage presents twin questions: whether an accused is capable of standing trial, and whether he was insane at the time he allegedly committed the act. After trial, some jurisdictions such as Washington, condition their appeals by the question: is the defendant mentally able to aid counsel? If defendant is unable to aid counsel on appeal, then his appeal is delayed until he has recovered sufficient mental competence. In this day of court-assigned counsel, rather than pro se appearances, this rule seems to be poorly advised because defendants actually play minimal roles in preparation and presentation of appeals, and because delaying an appeal creates a formidable obstacle in getting a reversal of unjustified convictions; furthermore, delay creates obvious injustices for wrongly convicted persons. After appeal, the criminal corrections process is conditioned by questions about a person's competency to be sentenced, and if competent, about his mental capacity to carry out his sentence, parole or to appreciate his execution. This article will not deal with the different concepts of criminal insanity applicable at various stages in the criminal law process. Instead, it will focus on one concept: the concept of insanity at the time of the act, commenting on Washington materials wherever possible.

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