Insanity evaluations represent the most challenging forensic assessments in the criminal domain” (Rogers, 2008, p.126). This is due to the fact that insanity evaluations require the psychologist to assess whether a defendant had a mental illness at the time that an offense was committed, and, whether that mental illness was related to the commission of the crime in a way that would make the defendant “insane” under applicable state laws. First, whether or not the defendant is presenting as mentally ill at the time of the assessment is often not relevant to the assessment; most defendants, processed and in the jail system, have access to medications and treatment that they may have lacked at the time of the crime. Therefore, it is important to realize that a defendant’s competency to stand trial is a different issue than whether a defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity. If a defendant is determined to be competent to stand trial and sanity is still an issue, then the forensic examiner has to combine psychology with one of two primary legal standards. Approximately half of the states follow the M’Naughten rule, which basically states that a defendant can be found not guilty by reason of insanity if he did not know the nature of the act he was doing or did not know that what he was doing was wrong (Frontline, Insanity FAQs, 2013). Other jurisdictions use “some variation of the Model Standard set out by the American Law Institute (A.L.I.) in 1962. Under the A.L.I. rule, a defendant is not held criminally responsible ‘if at the time of his conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to requirements of law'” (Frontline, Insanity FAQs, 2013). Three states do not allow for an insanity defense, but do allow defendants to plead guilty but insane. Therefore, how a forensic psychologist examines a defendant may be partially dependent upon state law.

One instrument that has traditionally been used to assess criminal responsibility is the Mental State at the Time of the Offense (MSE-Offense). In fact, some have advocated that the MSE-Offense is not only an effective screening tool for insanity, but can even be relied upon as the sole means of measurement in obvious insanity cases. However, recent testing of the MSE-Offense suggests that there are serious problems with it as a screening tool, not only because of reliability concerns, but also because recent testing suggests that the test may be invalid and may not actually measure sanity or lack thereof at the time of the commission of the offense (Rogers & Shuman, 2000). As a result, it cannot be said to be a widely accepted tool in the field of forensic psychology and would not pass the Daubert standard for the type of expert evidence that should be admissible in court.

Another one of the instruments that may be used to assess criminal responsibility is the Rogers Criminal Responsibility Assessment Scales. I believe that this tool is one of the most appropriate assessment tools for determining criminal insanity because it has a demonstrated inter-rater reliability that most assessment tools are lacking. In fact, studies that have examined the reliability of the Rogers Criminal Responsibility Assessment Scales “reveal strong (>95%) agreement among trained raters who score the measure based on the same records and the same interview of a criminal defendant” (Gowensmith et al., 2013). Given that rater reliability can be as low as around 50% when evaluators use different assessment tools, this reliability is a key factor in suggesting that the Rogers Criminal Responsibility Assessment Scales are a good tool for measuring insanity.

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Assuming that he faces trial, the defendant has to meet a heavy burden to establish insanity, and, based on the facts given and depending on the jurisdiction in which he is tried, it seems that the defendant might not be able to use an insanity defense. The defendant was suffering from psychosis during the robbery; however the presence of psychosis is not sufficient to trigger an insanity defense. In fact, “a common misconception is to assume that if a patient is psychotic, then that patient will qualify for insanity. It is signi-can’t to note the distinction between these two terms as well as their implications” (Torry & Billick, 2010). Establishing the mental illness is only the first hurdle; a defendant must then establish that the mental illness was directly responsible for the crime. Under the least-restrictive requirements for an insanity defense, the defendant had to lack substantial capacity to either appreciate the criminality of his act or to conform his behavior to the requirements of law. There is not enough evidence in the case given to establish that, at the time of the crime, the defendant could not conform his behavior to the requirements of the law. That is not to say that further assessment would not provide that evidence in a real-life assessment scenario. In fact, given the history of the defendant’s mental illness, it is likely that he was suffering from a delusion at the time of the crime that may have impacted his ability to understand that what he did was criminal, and fleshing out the substance of that delusion and how it impacted the defendant’s reasoning and reality testing would be critical in a real-life assessment scenario. However, those defects are speculative and are not substantiated from the bare facts in the case study.


Bonnie, R.J. (1992). The competence of criminal defendants: A theoretical reformulation.

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Frontline. (2013). A crime of insanity: The story of Ralph Tortorici: An overview. Retrieved September 30, 2013 from PBS website:

Frontline. (2013). Instanity defense FAQs. Retrieved September 30, 2013 from PBS website:

Gowensmith, W.N., Murrie, D.C., & Boccaccini, M.T. (2013). How reliable are forensic evaluations of legal sanity? Law and Human Behavior, 37(2), 98-106.

Mosley, D., Thyer, B.A., & Larrison, C. (2001). Development and preliminary validation of the Mosley Forensic Competency Scale. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 4(1), 41-48.

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K., & Eisenberg, M. (1998). Psychometric properties of the MacArthur Competence Assessment Tool-Criminal Adjudication. Psychological Assessment, 10(4), 435-443.

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Rogers, R., & Shuman, D.W. (2000). The Mental State at the Time of the Offense measure: Its

validation and admissibility under Daubert. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 28(1), 23-28.

Torry, Z. & Billick, S. (2010). Overlapping universe: Understanding legal insanity and psychosis. Psychiatric Quarterly, 81, 253-262.

Week 5: Discussion: Competent

Whether or not a defendant is competent to stand trial is a complicated issue that has no bearing on a defendant’s eventual guilt or lack thereof; it is a threshold barrier that the state must overcome in order to have a defendant stand trial for criminal charges. “Competency to stand trial hinges on a defendant’s current mental state at the time of trial. It is generally a low-level standard that requires merely that a defendant understands the proceedings against him — that he is being tried for a crime, and the relative roles of prosecutor, defenses attorney, and judge — and be able to assist his attorney in his defense” (Frontline, 2013). The reason that the competency standard is so low is, theoretically, to ensure that criminal defendants can have an opportunity to stand trial and have charges against them proven in accordance with due process considerations, rather than being subjected to institutionalization without a trial. As a result, it should be a protection to defendants. However, the reality is that it impacts many mentally ill and mentally defective criminal defendants in a negative manner, forcing many of them who are not truly able to meaningfully participate in their own defenses or understand the complexity of the criminal charges against them, to participate in an adversarial criminal process designed to result in their conviction.

Based on the low-level of the competency standard, it is clear that the defendant in the hypothetical case described is competent to stand trial. In the case study described, it seems fair to state that the defendant was suffering from some type of severe mental illness. He committed an arson that resulted in the death of his stepfather, because he believed that his stepfather was trying to poison his mother. In addition, during the course of his present crime, a robbery, he walked into a bank and attempted to rob it, though he left without the money. When he was apprehended by the police, he was disheveled and incoherent. He had previously been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, a diagnosis that was confirmed at the time that he was jailed. Furthermore, once he was given his anti-psychotic medication, he began to show improvements. The improvements were significant enough that he was able…


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