An Offender’s Mental Capacity Factors Into Sentencing

Law Firm Newswire



Lakeland, FL (Law Firm Newswire) April 29, 2015 – Among the many factors that go into determining a convicted offender’s sentence is mental capacity.

A defendant’s mental incapacity, once proven, may result in delayed sentencing until the individual is deemed better or may result in a reduced sentence under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Judges decide each case on its merits, as no two cases are ever the same.

Diminished capacity is not applicable as a defense if the defendant’s mental incapacity was the result of voluntary ingestion of drugs or alcohol. State laws tend to vary on this issue. Also it is important to note that a diminished capacity pleading is different from a not guilty by reason of insanity pleading.
By reason of insanity is an affirmative defense and if pled successfully may return, in most states, a not guilty verdict with the defendant admitted into a mental facility. In contrast, a diminished capacity pleading usually results in conviction of a lesser offense.

A criminal defendant’s mental incapacity or incompetence plays a role when it comes to sentencing in the United States. This is not to be confused with high profile murder cases or other serious crimes where the defendant may attempt to plead insanity or diminished mental capacity to avoid a longer or harsher sentence.

“It’s important to remember that the question of mental capacity is handled differently in state versus federal courts,” explains Thomas C. Grajek, a criminal defense attorney located in Lakeland, Fla. “An example would be that some state courts adhere to federal rules and others do not. This is something I cover with any defendant’s case I am handling that may require a diminished capacity defense.”

The rule of thumb for sentencing under federal court guidelines works as a points system: the higher point tally, the more rigorous the sentence. Just as there are harsher sentences, based on the points system, there is also leeway for shorter sentences, based on mitigating factors.

“Diminished mental capacity is a mitigating factor,” says Grajek. “Courts consider the defenses such as the defendant could not control his or herself, could not think clearly, or did not understand that his or her actions were wrong.” Diagnosed psychological or medical conditions also play a part in sentencing, as conditions such as schizophrenia can make it virtually impossible for an individual to understand what he or she is doing.

Many recognize a diminished capacity plea to be related to the M’Naghten Rule, used to test if the defendant in a case can distinguish right from wrong. If certain criteria are met under this old common law rule, then an accused may be found guilty but insane or not guilty by reason of insanity. Sentencing is then either discretionary or mandatory depending on the state and the offense.

The insanity plea is recognized in numerous countries worldwide, including Canada and most states in the U.S., with the exception of Vermont, Kansas, Utah, Montana and Idaho.

Pleading diminished capacity can be similar to treading on thin ice, as mental and psychological issues are often difficult to prove with any degree of certitude. There are instances where a defendant may not have had a mental disorder prior to sentencing or cases where the accused did not display symptoms and no one realized there were mental issues.

If a case makes it to court and the defendant does display troubling symptoms, sentencing is usually delayed until a mental assessment is carried out. The results of such testing may end with the defendant being placed in a mental health facility. The sentencing process may then continue once the defendant recovers – if ever. “If there is no chance of recovery” outlines Grajek, “the defendant is declared incompetent and committed for long-term treatment.”