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SJC Reviews Law on Lack of Criminal Responsibility Defense

gavel-1238036The Supreme Judicial Court recently issued a decision addressing the affirmative defense of lack of criminal responsibility. In the case – Commonwealth v. Lawson – the SJC affirmed the defendant’s convictions for assault and battery on a police officer, resisting arrest, and related offenses. Although the Court found that the judge properly denied the defendant’s motion for required findings of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility, it reviewed the standard and determined that the presumption of sanity alone is not sufficient to sustain the Commonwealth’s burden of proving criminal responsibility beyond a reasonable doubt.

The background was as follows. “The defendant, after being told by … police officers that he had an outstanding warrant, resisted arrest and assaulted the officers.” At his trial, “the defendant offered a defense of lack of criminal responsibility, and called a forensic psychologist who described the defendant’s lengthy mental health history and opined that the defendant was not criminally responsible at the time of the offense[s]. The Commonwealth did not present expert evidence on the issue of criminal responsibility in rebuttal but rather relied on the circumstances surrounding the offense and cross-examination of the defendant’s expert to establish criminal responsibility.” On appeal, “[t]he defendant contend[ed] that, where the Commonwealth offered no expert evidence that the defendant was criminally responsible and where [in the defendant’s view] there was nothing about the circumstances of the commission of the crimes or the defendant’s conduct after their commission that would suggest that he was criminally responsible, it must be inferred that the judge denied the motion for required findings of not guilty based solely on the ‘presumption of sanity,’ even though the judge made no reference to such a presumption. The defendant further claim[ed] that the inference arising from this ‘presumption’ alone cannot support a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was criminally responsible.” The Commonwealth expressed the opposing view, that “the inference arising from the ‘presumption of sanity’ alone is sufficient to defeat … a motion” for a required finding of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility.

The SJC held “that, under current case law, the Commonwealth [was] correct,” but then “revisit[ed] the doctrine arising from that case law” and concluded that the weight of the “presumption of sanity” should be reduced. The Court stated, “[T]he ‘presumption of sanity’ is not truly a presumption but rather an inference that the defendant is probably criminally responsible because most people are criminally responsible for their acts. Where a defendant proffers a defense of lack of criminal responsibility and there is some evidence that supports it, this inference, standing alone, cannot support a finding that a defendant is criminally responsible beyond a reasonable doubt. In light of its decision reducing the significance of the presumption of sanity, the SJC ultimately retracted the directive that it had issued in Commonwealth v. Keita, 429 Mass. 843, 846 (1999), that ‘[a] jury instruction concerning the presumption … should be given in every case in which the question of the defendant’s criminal responsibility is raised.’”

The Court went on to say that although the Commonwealth may not rely on ‘the presumption of sanity’ to establish criminal responsibility, the Commonwealth need not offer expert testimony in every case and may rely instead on” “the inferences arising from the circumstances of the offense, including evidence that the defendant planned the offense, acted on a rational motive, made rational decisions in committing the offense and in avoiding capture, and attempted to conceal the offense or his or her role in the offense.” “Applying the proper test [to this case], [the Court held] that the evidence … was sufficient to allow a reasonable finder of fact to conclude that the defendant was criminally responsible at the time of [his] offenses.”

On a procedural note, the SJC “conclude[d] that a motion for a required finding of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility may be brought only at the close of all the evidence,” because the Commonwealth’s obligation to prove criminal responsibility arises “after there is evidence presented of lack of criminal responsibility that is sufficient to warrant a reasonable doubt, … and such evidence is often presented only during the defendant’s case. By limiting such motions for a required finding of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility to the close of all the evidence, we ensure that the Commonwealth has a full opportunity to offer evidence in rebuttal of any such defense claim.”

If you or a loved one is charged with a crime and has a mental illness that may have played a role in the offense, you will need an experienced lawyer to assess your case and determine whether you have a viable lack of criminal responsibility defense, or some other type of mental health related defense. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has worked with numerous clients who have struggled with mental health issues and is committed to helping each and every one of them get the best possible outcome. Call him for a free consultation today.