Nikolas Cruz And Mental Illness Misconceptions: What People Get Wrong About Being ‘Legally Insane’

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A recent story by Time Magazine suggested that James and Kimberly Snead — the couple who took in alleged Parkland, Florida, shooter Nikolas Cruz after his adopted mother died after contracting pneumonia — “didn’t know” that Nikolas Cruz had a mental illness. According to them, Cruz — who, through his public defender Howard Finkelstein, said that he would plead guilty to all the charges if the prosecutors took the death penalty off the table — had, indeed, kept guns in the home, but they were under lock and key, and they insisted that he practice gun safety.

The Sneads have said that they will cooperate with prosecutors.

In response, this writer decided to take a look at the most common misconceptions about both mental illness and the definition of being legally insane.

Nikolas Cruz’s “Mental Illness” Wouldn’t Make Him More Violent, According to Science

Because of Nikolas Cruz’s alleged act — and other violent acts wherein the perpetrator claimed “mental illness” as an affirmative defense — people tend to equate the mentally ill with being violent. But according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, not only is there no correlation between mental illness and violence, but the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violent crime, not perpetrators of violent crime.

“Most individuals with serious mental illness are not dangerous. Most acts of violence are committed by individuals who are not mentally ill. Individuals with serious mental illness are victimized by violent acts more often than they commit violent acts. Being a young male or a substance abuser (alcohol or drugs) is a greater risk factor for violent behavior than being mentally ill. No evidence suggests that people with serious mental illness receiving effective treatment are more dangerous than individuals in the general population. That being said, a small number of individuals with serious mental illnesses commit acts of violence. Individuals who are not being treated commit almost all of these acts; many of them also abusing alcohol or drugs.”

For Nikolas Cruz To Claim Legal Insanity, He Wouldn’t Have To Be Mentally Ill

According to HG.org, the leading online resource for lawyers, “legal insanity” and “mental illness” are not one in the same. According to them, someone’s psychologist can determine that s/he is mentally ill, but that person still may not meet the legal definition of “insanity.”

In addition, using the so-called “insanity defense” is the least successful defense. Finally, there are a few tests that need to be administered before a defendant can be considered “legally insane.”

  • The M’Naghten Test: Considered the most popular of tests to administer, this test determines whether the defendant knew, at the time s/he was committing the crime, that what s/he was doing was wrong. If the defendant suffers from a “defect of reason,” and as a result, did not know the difference between right and wrong, s/he can be considered “legally insane.”
  • The Brawner Rule: This test asks one question — did the defendant lack the capacity to appreciate the severity of his/her crime because s/he has a mental disease or defect? If the answer is yes, then the defendant can be considered “legally insane.” (The Brawner Rule cannot be applied if the defendant committed similar crimes, repeatedly.)
  • A Shift of Burden of Proof: Another reason that the “legally insane” defense is risky for the defense is that the burden of proof shifts from the prosecution to the defense. In a criminal case, the prosecutor has the so-called “burden of proof” to show, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the crime. If there is any doubt, the defendant should not be convicted. However, if a defendant’s legal team claims that s/he is “legally insane,” the burden of proof shifts to the defense. If the defendant cannot prove that s/he is legally insane, s/he may be found guilty of the crime.
  • So, while Nikolas Cruz claims “mental illness” for his alleged crimes, it does not mean that he is legally insane, and neither does it mean that all mentally ill people are violent.