Understanding The Insanity Defense in West Virginia – State v. Fleming

mental-health-series-1240866-1280x960One form of defense against criminal charges that is frequently shown on TV, but less often used in the courtroom, is the defense of insanity.  Under West Virginia criminal laws, a conviction for most crimes requires the government to prove that the defendant acted in a criminal fashion (the actus reus) and had the mental state necessary for the crime (the mens rea).  When a criminal defendant is insane, he or she lacks the ability to have the mental state necessary for the crime, and accordingly this is a defense to criminal charges and possibly a lifetime in jail. Because of the significant implications of the insanity defense, it can be very difficult to prove and often requires extensive evaluation by outside experts. A recent West Virginia Supreme Court case deals with the insanity defense and how it is handled in criminal court.

In State v. Fleming, the West Virginia Supreme Court considered the circumstances of Chris Fleming, who was charged with 12 counts of wanton endangerment and one count of attempted murder after having an argument with his wife. Mr. Fleming left their home and proceeded to run his Jeep into a neighbor’s yard. When the neighbor attempted to approach him, Mr. Fleming threatened his life with a gun. Mr. Fleming then proceeded to threaten the neighbor’s wife and other individuals who became involved in chasing down Mr. Fleming as things escalated. Mr. Fleming was eventually pursued by police and shot once at them before turning himself in. He eventually cooperated in the investigation of what had happened, but he could not recall any of the details from the evening.

After Mr. Fleming was indicted, he filed a notice of mental defense, stating that the PTSD he experienced as a result of his time in the military had rendered him insane. He was subjected to several evaluations by psychologists, who determined that he was competent to stand trial but did not understand the criminal nature of his actions.  Eventually, the State offered a plea deal with Mr. Fleming wherein he would plead guilty by reason of insanity to several of the charges against him.  The court, doubting the validity of the insanity defense, ordered a second psychological evaluation, at which Mr. Fleming was determined to be sane and able to understand his criminal responsibility. As a result, the State withdrew the plea deal. Mr. Fleming was eventually tried and convicted on all counts.

On appeal, Mr. Fleming contended that the State did not prove that he was sane at the time of his conduct. In West Virginia, there is a presumption of sanity for a defendant. However, if the defendant offers evidence of being insane, the burden is on the prosecution to disprove such evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. A defendant is considered insane if, at the time of his conduct, he suffered from a mental disease or defect that prevented him from being able to appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts or conform his conduct to the requirements of law.

Mr. Fleming argued that he clearly provided evidence through his experts that he was insane due to his PTSD and did not understand the wrongfulness of his actions.  Conversely, the State argued that Mr. Fleming’s experts did not testify to this effect, or, even if they did, they were disproven by the State’s experts. While one of Mr. Fleming’s experts testified that he believed the PTSD completely impaired Mr. Fleming’s ability to understand his actions, the other expert was less certain. Conversely, the State’s expert testified that Mr. Fleming was completely competent to stand trial. Ultimately, the Supreme Court determined that the jury had adequately weighed all of the testimony before it and given the State’s expert’s testimony more weight. Accordingly, Mr. Fleming’s appeal of the sanity determination was denied.

Raising the insanity defense in a criminal case can be a complicated proposition.  If you are concerned that a loved one may have committed a crime at a time when they were not sane and did not understand the wrongfulness of their actions, it is important that you speak with a defense attorney as soon as possible. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm may be able to help you. We have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

Court Orders Sentencing Redo After Prosecutors Disregard Plea Deal – U.S. v. Wells

A Plea Deal Gone Wrong in West Virginia – State v. Fields

Appealing a Criminal Conviction in West Virginia – State v. Imoh