Insanity defense trials don’t happen often.
When such cases do go to trial, the defense usually loses.
That’s the challenge facing attorneys for Steven Vander Briel, a 31-year-old New Jersey native who is scheduled to go on trial for murder Monday. His attorneys said they will pursue an insanity defense on the murder charge that Briel faces in the death of one of his University of Mary Washington housemates a little more than a year ago.
In court last week, veteran Fredericksburg-area attorney Mark Gardner acknowledged the challenge of an insanity defense.
One primary hurdle, he said in court, is that most people don’t know what happens to a defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“Some attorneys don’t know,” he said, adding that, in his 35 years trying cases, Briel’s will be his first insanity case that he will argue in front of a jury.
Defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity are civilly committed to a secure mental health facility under the custody of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services. Department experts evaluate patients periodically to determine whether to release them or continue to hold them in custody.
The department says there are an average of 35 cases annually statewide in which a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity.
According to the department, those committed following insanity cases spend an average of 6.5 years in an institution. But many stay longer and some spend the rest of their lives in a mental facility.
One famous example of an insanity defense is John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1982. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to St. Elizabeth's Hospital.
While he has been allowed to leave the facility to visit family, Hinckley remains committed at the hospital more than three decades later.
While insanity defense cases are rare, there was a spike in Virginia last year involving committals to mental health facilities, according to the state’s behavioral services department.
There were 90 insanity case committals in 2015, compared with an average of 61 a year from 2010–14.
University of Virginia School of Law Professor Richard Bonnie, who teaches and writes about the law and is well known for his work in forensic psychology, figures insanity defenses account for less than 1 percent of all cases.
“It’s really a rare thing,” said Bonnie, author of “The Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr.: A Case Study in the Insanity Defense.” But he added that they “are the kinds of cases that tend to get a lot of attention.”
One reason there aren’t many insanity defense cases is that it’s a high threshold to meet, in Virginia and nationwide. Such high-profile defendants as D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes and serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy failed to meet the standard of legal insanity.
According to Virginia law, in order to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, a defendant must have an underlying mental disease or defect. It must be proved that during the crime, the defendant did not realize the act was wrong or that an “irresistible impulse” drove the defendant to commit the crime.
“It’s a narrow test. It’s a narrow defense,” said Bonnie.
When two experts agree that a defendant meets the insanity standard, both sides usually come to a mutually agreed outcome, said Bonnie.
The professor said he wasn’t familiar with the Briel case. Attorneys involved in the case have not given any indication that such an agreement is possible.
According to court records, Briel told his other housemates that he and Mann had gotten into a fight on the afternoon she was killed, but prosecutors have not publicly offered any additional details about a possible motive for the crime.
Briel has undergone two psychological evaluations, but the findings have not been released with other court documents.
Bonnie said insanity cases that go to trial are usually “an uphill battle for the defense.” He cited data indicating that the defense loses 75 percent of such trials.
Convincing a jury to acquit a person who committed a crime is not a promising position to take.
In court, Gardner characterized it as “troubling” for jurors to find that a person who committed a crime is not being held responsible in the typical legal sense.
Bonnie said jurors are naturally skeptical of the insanity defense.
However, he pointed out that such a defense is “essential to the moral integrity of the law” because sometimes finding a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity is clearly the right thing to do and “legally the proper outcome.”