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Atlanta Criminal Defense Lawyers > Blog > Assault > How Does the Insanity Defense Work in Georgia?

How Does the Insanity Defense Work in Georgia?


Television crime dramas are often fond of portraying the insanity defense. In the eyes of many people, “pleading insanity” is seen as a loophole exploited by a guilty defendant to escape punishment for their actions. But the reality of the insanity defense in Georgia is far more complex.

Take this recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Waters v. State. In this case, prosecutors charged the defendant with felony murder based on aggravated assault. The defendant, a man now in his 80s, shot and killed his then-girlfriend in 2013 at their home. The defendant called his pastor and then his brother, admitting to both that he shot the victim. He made a similar admission to first responders called to his house.

At trial, the defendant asserted an insanity defense. This is an affirmative defense under Georgia law, meaning the defense has the burden of proof. A pharmacist testified that he’d filled the defendant’s “numerous prescriptions” for drugs commonly used to treat schizophrenia and mental illness. In response, however, the state presented testimony from a psychologist who interviewed the defendant and concluded that while he suffered from mental health problems, he was “criminally responsible” at the time he shot the victim.

The jury found the defendant “guilty but mentally ill” of felony murder. The Court of Appeals upheld the verdict.

Not Guilty But Mentally Ill

So what does “guilty but mentally ill” mean? When a defendant offers an affirmative defense of insanity, Georgia law gives the jury five options when it comes to a verdict:

  • guilty;
  • not guilty;
  • not guilty by reason of insanity at the time of the crime;
  • guilty but mentally ill at the time of the crime (felony cases only); or
  • guilty but mentally retarded (felony cases only).

Guilty but mentally ill (GBMI) is effectively no different than a guilty verdict. The defendant in the case above, for instance, is subject to the same criminal sentencing and incarceration as anyone else found guilty of the same offense. The GBMI is really little more than the jury expressing its view that mental illness contributed to the defendant’s actions but did not override his judgment to the point where he could not distinguish right from wrong.

Not guilty by reason of insanity, however, is not a “get out of jail free” card. A defendant who successfully pleads insanity is subject to detention in a state mental health facility for a period of up to 30 days following the trial. During this time, officials will evaluate the defendant’s mental health and, based on their findings, the judge can order the defendant’s involuntary civil commitment.

Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers Today

If you are facing felony charges it is important to work with an experienced Georgia assault attorney who can review your case and advise you on the best legal strategy for your situation. Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers today to schedule a free consultation. We serve clients throughout Georgia including Atlanta, Dunwoody, Alpharetta, Cobb County, Fulton County, Gwinnett County, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.



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