WSW: The Criminal Justice System And Mental Capacity

Jun 2, 2016

Jason Dalton - file photo
Credit Robbie Feinberg/WMUK

Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School Professor Tonya Krause-Phelan says it’s not uncommon for someone to plead insanity. But she says it’s rare for a jury return a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity.” 


Jason Dalton has been bound over for trial on charges of killing six people and severely wounded two others in a February shooting spree in Kalamazoo. Krause-Phelan who has also worked as a defense attorney joined us to discuss how the insanity defense works in Michigan.

Krause-Phelan says society has always been hesitant to prosecute and punish the young and the mentally ill. She says our criminal system defines crime as a guilty act and a guilty state of mind.

Dalton has been found competent to stand trial. But Krause-Phelan says competency is a procedural matter, while insanity is a legal defense. She says competency is about whether the defendant can participate in their case. Do they understand charges? Can they communicate with their lawyer? Krause-Phelan sys if someone is found not competent to stand trial, the trial cannot go forward.

Krause-Phelan says the insanity defense is about the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the offense. A history of mental illness can be considered. She says there will also be a diagnosis by a mental health professional. Krause-Phelan says actions at the time and shortly before the crime can also be considered.

But the insanity defense is not really a way to walk free, according to Krause-Phelan. She says a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity” means that person falls under the control of the mental health system. A defendant can be found guilty, but mentally ill. But Krause-Phelan says it’s not really a defense. She says it’s a flag that tells the state that the defendant should receive treatment for mental illness while they serve their sentence.