It has been nearly a month since the June 5 shooting at Seattle Pacific University that killed one student and wounded several others. Recently, accused shooter Aaron Ybarra pleaded “not guilty” to charges set against him in King County Superior Court. Aaron Ybarra’s defense attorney, Ramona Brandes, has filed a notice of intent to claim the insanity defense in the upcoming trial.
The success rates of the insanity defense varies across the country. Differences in how each state may interpret certain aspects of criminal law, and what is needed to determine a successful insanity defense, contribute the success (or failure) of such a plea. This should not be confused with a defense plea of “incompetency,” as this latter criminal defense technique is used when an accused person is not deemed fit to stand trial at the time of the hearing. This determination is temporary, and theoretically not meant to be a permanent determination.
The criminal defense plea of insanity, Aaron Ybarra’s most recent defense strategy, is used when a defendant either cannot distinguish between right and wrong, or can distinguish the two, but was not able to control his own actions at the time of the criminal act in question. The American criminal justice system’s origins of the “not guilty, by reason of insanity” defense isrooted in a criminal defense plan’s “toolbox of schema,” so to speak. Attorneys and law students may note that the M’Naghten Case, a staple example of legal education, is often used as an example of what the insanity defense came to light in modern history.
The “M’Nagten Ruling” was dubbed after the dubious trial of Daniel M’Nagten, a man accused in the shooting death of an innocent bystander; a man whom the defendant believed was plotting to kill him. M’Nagten claimed to be experiencing paranoid delusions that his life was in jeopardy, acting in a “self defense” of sorts. As standard practice in American criminal law, a defendant is assumed that his or her mental faculties are intact, until they can be proven otherwise. M’Nagten’s defense team argued that at the time of the actions which resulted in a man’s death, the defendant was not aware that what he was doing was wrong. The jury voted in favor of the defendant’s “not guilty” plea by reason of insanity. This proved somewhat controversial, as the prosecution argued that the jury did not have enough information to make a the decision surrounding M’Nagten’s insanity defense, thus potentially changing the verdict and subsequent rulings. The court upheld its decision, noting that the defendant did not act contrary to the law, but that he believed, at the time of the crime, that he was protecting himself, then he was acting in self-defense.
The case history, while important in the annals of American criminal law, is not necessarily used as a primary defense tactic. The famous case is often referenced in modern insanity pleas, but satisfactory corroborative evidence pertaining to the individual’s defense case must also provide significant proof of “insanity.” Recently, media outlets have reported that Ybarra’s defense stated that the accused has long since suffered from mental illness and had recently discontinued taking his medication, arguing that the 26-year-old shooter was not in a state of mind that would allow him to determine right from wrong. However the trial unfolds, Aaron Ybarra’s insanity claim is the latest in defense strategies that may or may not determine his future sentencing.
By Hayden Freed