Criminal law is very concerned with whether a suspect or defendant was aware of what they were doing at the time of an alleged crime. The reason for this concern is the almost universal agreement that someone who intentionally does something bad is more culpable than someone who negligently does the same deed.
How this concern with intent is different from the legal defense of insanity, though, is frequently misunderstood by those outside of the legal field.
Criminal Law and Intentional Conduct
An excellent example of how Pennsylvania's criminal law is concerned with someone's intent, or lack thereof, is in how murder charges can be filed. In descending order of severity, they are:
- First-degree murder, or the intentional killing of someone else, complete with premeditation
- Second-degree murder, also known as felony murder, which is the killing of someone else during the commission of a felony
- Third-degree murder, or the intentional killing of someone else, but without premeditation or while during another serious crime
- Voluntary manslaughter, which is the intentional killing of someone else, but while the defendant was in the heat of passion
- Involuntary manslaughter, or the unintentional killing of someone else
While second-degree murder does seem like an anomaly, the trend moves from intentional to unintentional conduct and goes from planned to reckless to neutral to something closer to excusable mental states.
The gradually reduced sentences for these crimes makes a defendant's mental state an important piece of the puzzle – a less culpable state of mind can lead to lesser charges and lighter sentences.
Insanity is Different from Intent
Some people think that fighting a criminal charge by showing a less culpable state of mind is the same thing as presenting evidence of insanity under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 315, Pennsylvania's statute outlining the insanity defense.
It is not.
While a defendant's mental state deals with whether they intended to do the deed, insanity deals with whether the defendant's mental illness kept them from knowing that their conduct was wrong, or kept them from knowing what they were doing. The differences are subtle but very important for two reasons.
- Proving a defendant's mental state is a job for the prosecutors. It is up to the defense lawyer to prove an insanity defense
- If a defense lawyer keeps the prosecutors from proving the necessary mental state for the crime charged, the result is an acquittal and the defendant can walk away. But if a defense lawyer proves insanity, the defendant can still be confined in a mental institution
Joseph D. Lento: Philadelphia's Criminal Defense Lawyer
Joseph D. Lento is a criminal defense lawyer who passionately represents those who have been accused of committing a crime in the Philadelphia area and throughout Pennsylvania. With his help, you can fully understand your legal options and determine the best course of action for your circumstances.
Contact him online or call his law office at (215) 535-5353 for the legal help you need to beat the allegations against you.