Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies Standard in Insanity Defense Cases

In an important decision delivered yesterday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the Commonwealth is not required to present expert testimony to prove a criminal defendant, who argued he was not criminally responsible when he committed a crime, was sane.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Lawson

In March of 2014, two Boston cops saw the defendant talking to two other men on the street.  The officers knew the defendant had outstanding warrants and moved in to arrest him.  When the defendant attempted to put his hand in his pocket, the cops tackled him and engaged in a struggle during which the defendant allegedly kicked one of the officers in the head.  The defendant was charged with, among other crimes, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (shod foot).  The defendant was eventually handcuffed and taken to the police station, where he continued to be disruptive.  Later in the day, he was taken to Mass General Hospital where he was described as disheveled and paranoid.  The defendant’s mental condition was so dire that hospital staff gave him emergency antipsychotic medication.  Within days, the defendant was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for a competency evaluation.  A forensic psychologist examined the defendant and later concluded he was not criminally responsible on the date he allegedly assaulted the Boston cops.  A defendant is not criminally responsible when a mental disease or defect prevented his ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or prevented him from conforming his behavior to the law.  Commonly known as the insanity defense, a defendant who is not criminally responsible cannot be convicted of the crime with which he is charged.  The forensic psychologist testified at the defendant’s trial that the defendant had a schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and a mood disorder.  The defendant also had a history of substance abuse.  When the defendant was not taking his medications as prescribed (which he apparently was not on the date in question), he acted erratically.

The Commonwealth did not call its own expert to rebut the defendant’s expert that he was not criminally responsible.  Instead, the prosecutor cross-examined the defendant’s forensic psychologist, who testified the defendant said he had been worried he was going to be returned to jail when the officers approached him and he was trying to escape.  At the close of the evidence, the defendant asked the judge to enter a finding of not guilty, as the Commonwealth had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was sane.  The judge denied the defendant’s motion and he was convicted of several crimes related to the incident.  The defendant appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

The Court said there is an inference that a defendant is criminally responsible, because most people in society are responsible for their conduct.  However, where the defendant raises the issue of criminal responsibility and presents evidence that he was not sane, it is the Commonwealth’s burden of proving his sanity beyond a reasonable doubt.  The question in this case was whether the Commonwealth could satisfy its burden without presenting its own expert testimony.  The Court said yes, but warned that the Commonwealth “proceeds at its peril if it chooses to offer no expert testimony to rebut a defense expert’s opinion of lack of criminal responsibility.”  In this case, according to the Court, testimony that the defendant was scared to go back to jail and wanted to escape the cops was sufficient to establish he was criminally responsible.  Accordingly, the guilty verdicts were upheld.