Can a Lawyer Insist on an Insanity Defense Against a Client’s Wishes?

The question of whether a lawyer can insist on an insanity defense against a client’s wishes was recently examined in a case heard before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Earlier this year, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a lawyer cannot insist on an insanity defense against a client’s wishes, even if the defendant shows clear signs of insanity.

Can a lawyer insist on an insanity defense?
A lawyer cannot insist on an insanity defense even when the alternative may keep a defendant in jail, court rules

The case involved an Arizona man who said he stabbed his cellmate numerous times because demons drove him to it. The justices granted Jonathan Read a new trial after ruling his lawyer wrongly pressed an insanity defense against his wishes.

Arizona has a guilty except insane defense. On occasions, our attorney will recommend a defendant uses this defense. However, it’s important to secure the consent of the accused.  The decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates why.

The panel said Read’s lawyer violated his Sixth Amendment rights by entering the insanity plea on his behalf in stabbing of Read’s cellmate at the Federal Correctional Institute in Phoenix in 2014.

Read was indicted in 2015 on a count of assault resulting in serious bodily injury and another count of assault with a dangerous weapon with intent to do bodily harm. He stabbed his cellmate 13 times with a knife on May 31, 2014.

Read said he wanted to represent himself. The judge in his case appointed a lawyer to represent him. The judge said Read’s actions were “decidedly bizarre.” He said Read’s arguments in defense to the charges against him were “nonsensical.”

The 9th Circuit panel ruled that the trial judge made his decision without the benefit of a 2018 Supreme Court case. That case established while attorneys are responsible for the legal strategy in a case, they must still comply with the defendant’s wishes.

Circuit Judge Michael Daly Hawkins wrote that the trial judge faced a difficult dilemma.

He said he had to decide whether to allow a mentally ill defendant to eschew a plausible defense of insanity in favor of one “based in delusion” that had no chance of success.  

While Read’s defense of demonic possession would have been ineffective, the circuit court ruled it was what he wanted.

The Circuit Court decision was backed by University of Arizona law professor Barbara E. Bergman. She said the appeals court did the correct thing.  She said the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution gives the right to the effective “assistance of counsel.”

However, even in cases in which the defendant suffers from a mental illness, the attorney is still an assistant. The final decision rests with the defendant.

 Read said he had no memory of the attack on his cellmate. Court record said they had no disagreements before the attack.

Read was initially ruled incompetent to stand trial. He was later found competent after another evaluation. When his attorney confirmed he would pursue an insanity plea, Read underwent another evaluation.

In three evaluations, doctors found Read had a schizotypical personality and a “cannabis-use disorder.”

If you or a family member with a mental disorder is accused of a crime, you should consult our Arizona criminal defense lawyer. Bernardo Garcia can discuss the insanity defense and your options. Please contact us as soon as possible.