Is Mental Illness a Defense in Pennsylvania Criminal Cases?

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When you’re charged with a crime, the prosecutor must prove that every element of that crime is true in your case. Sometimes, your mental health is relevant to the question of whether elements are met or not. In these cases, your lawyer may be able to counter by introducing related evidence to explain how the mental health issue affected your actions. This blog post will explain how mental illness can work as a defense in Pennsylvania criminal courts. With criminal allegations having such potentially heavy consequences, and with mental health impacting us on such a fundamental level, it’s important to have a trusted and experienced York County criminal defense attorney to fight by your side. Don’t hesitate to call us today if you’ve been accused of a crime and have a mental illness.

Backing Up: How Elements of a Crime are Proven Absent Mental Illness

First, some important background information so that we can properly contextualize mental illness defenses.

After being charged with a crime, and if you don’t accept or are not offered a plea bargain, the prosecutor will need to prove every single element of the crime stated in the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecutor doesn’t, then the court is required to find you not guilty.

To demonstrate how subtle differences in elements of a crime affect the prosecution, we’ll look at burglary and theft as examples. In Pennsylvania, a defendant is guilty of burglary when

  • They entered a building or otherwise occupied structure,
  • Having at that time the intent to commit a crime inside,
  • And the premises were not open to the public nor was the defendant allowed to enter.

If any one of those elements isn’t true, then the person hasn’t committed burglary, though depending on the circumstances, they may have committed another crime like theft. Suppose that someone entered a restaurant to use their restroom, during regular business hours early in the afternoon, precisely with the intent to steal. In that scenario, the person cannot be guilty of burglary as burglary is defined in Pennsylvania, because they entered the restaurant during normal business hours, though they are guilty of theft.

Is Mental Illness a Viable Defense in a Criminal Case?

How does the previous relate to mental illness as a defense? There are cases when the presence of mental illness negates necessary elements of a crime. For instance, if you were having a psychiatric episode at the time you committed the crime, your attorney may be able to bring that to bear and prove the intent element of the accused crime was not met. Every single element of a crime needs to be proven before someone is found guilty, so this may be enough for your attorney to succeed.

Your counsel will need to prove your argument by a preponderance of the evidence if you decide to advance a mental health defense, a not guilty by reason of insanity plea, or a not guilty but mentally ill plea. Preponderance of the evidence means 51% or greater, which is a less heavy burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt.

In a not guilty by reason of insanity plea, your attorney must prove you could not understand right from wrong or you couldn’t understand the morality of the act you committed due to your mental illness. A guilty but mentally ill plea requires your attorney to prove that because of your mental illness, you couldn’t appreciate why what you did was wrong or act as the law required you to.

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