Insanity-First Bifurcated Trial Deemed Improper

August 16, 2011
By Michael J. Jurista, Esq. on August 16, 2011 2:27 PM |

In a decision of great import to mentally ill defendants, the Appellate Division recently overturned longstanding New Jersey precedent which required that an insanity defense first be raised in a separate trial before substantive issues were raised. In State v. Handy, A-04101-09, which overturned State v. Kahn, 175 N.J. Super. 72 (App. Div. 1980), the Appellate Division expressed concern that the former system was fundamentally unfair insofar as a defendant who succesfully pled insanity loses the chance to exonerate himself completely: "Rather than requiring the State to prove the elements of an offense in a criminal proceeding, Kahn essentially presumes that the State has already done so."

In reaching its decision, and in overturning Kahn, the Appellate Division explored other federal and state court decisions, as well as New Jersey's Code of Criminal Justice.

Notwitstanding the above, the Handy Court did express some concern that its decision could create some confusion for future juror members. As stated by Judge Jack Sabatino, "[j]urors may have some difficulty in appreciating how a defendant can legitimately argue in the first part of the trial that he acted rationally to defend himself and then take a seemingly opposite stance in the second phase by asserting his insanity." Because of the potential for confusion, the Court sent the issue to the Supreme Court's Committee on Criminal Practice to set up certain rules on how to deal with this situation.

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