Insanity Defense in Iowa

Mental Health and the Insanity Defense

If you've had mental health issues in the past and are charged with a crime, you may have wondered about whether the insanity defense could help you.

The answer is, with very few exceptions, probably not.

After John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan way back when and got off on the insanity defense, people got angry about the insanity defense and made it a lot harder to use. That's why the rule is like it is today. The insanity defense is now rarely used.

Iowa's M'Naghten Rule for the Insanity Defense

Under Iowa law, temporary insanity doesn’t result in anything called an insanity plea.  A defendant pleads Not Guilty and gives notice of the intent to raise the defense at trial.

 When a defense attorney alleges that because of mental illness, a defendant didn’t know what they were doing and shouldn’t be assigned criminal responsibility for their conduct, the burden of proof remains on the State to show the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of all elements of the offense, but the burden is on the defense to show that the defense of insanity applies.

Expert witnesses, such as psychiatrists, can help the jury or trial court understand why a defendant might be guilty but mentally ill in a way that precludes conviction.

Iowa follows the M'Naghten rule for the insanity defense.

"A person is insane if at the time the offense was committed the accused was suffering from a diseased or deranged mental condition that renders the person incapable of knowing the nature and quality of the act the person is committing or, incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong."

So here's how this would go.

How to Use the Insanity Defense

If you wanted to use the insanity defense, your attorney would have to file a notice with the court. Notice of intent to rely on the insanity defense is required when pretrial motions are allowed, which is within 40 days of your arraignment. The court sometimes gives exceptions to this timeframe for "good cause."

At trial, the state first has the burden of proving you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. After you've been proven guilty, you will have the burden of showing insanity.

For the insanity defense to work, you have to prove "by a preponderance of the evidence" that you were insane at the time of the offense.

"Preponderance of the evidence" means, "more likely than not." You would have to show that you were "suffering from a diseased or deranged mental condition." You would also have to show that your diseased or deranged mental condition caused you to not know the "nature and quality" of what you were doing or to know that it was wrong to do it.

Here's a useful example from law school. If a man strangles someone but because of his mental condition, doesn't know he's strangling a person but thinks that he's squeezing lemons to make lemonade, that's legal insanity. If he's strangling a person because he hears the voice of god telling him that he has to strangle this person to save the world, that isn't legal insanity and he will still be convicted.

Lawyers for Insanity Defense

Related posts:

We can help you figure out what to do about your criminal charges in Des Moines, Polk County, Ankeny, Ames, Johnston, West Des Moines, Waukee, Saylorville, Bondurant, Altoona, Clive, Grimes, Pleasant Hill, Story County, Boone County, Marshall County, Dallas County, Jasper County, Madison County, Warren County, Marion County, Wapello County, Davis County, Ottumwa, Bloomfield, Iowa City, Council Bluffs, and the rest of Iowa.

If you've been charged with a crime in Iowa and you want to explore the viability of the insanity defense in your case, call (515) 491 6128 and ask us if we can help.

iowa defense attorneys Katie Clark and John Sears

This blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as legal advice. Consult with a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.  Reading this site doesn’t create an attorney-client relationship.  If you want to talk to us about representing you when you’re charged with an Iowa crime, please contact us at (515) 491 6128 and we’ll set up a time to talk.

What will happen if I’m charged?

When someone accuses you of a crime, the police will investigate. Then, if a judge finds probable cause, you could go to jail. Once in jail, you might be let out on bond. Pretrial release might let you out. You might not be let out at all.

Instead of sending you to jail, the judge might give you papers. Those papers will tell you when your court date is. After your arrest. police will read you your rights. Then, they will give you time to call an intimidation attorney or a law firm. 

Preliminary Hearing

At an initial appearance, you will see a judge. The judge might schedule a preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, you or your lawyer will ask questions. One or more witnesses will be under oath. After the questions, the judge will decide whether probable cause exists.

Your attorney might suggest waiving the preliminary hearing. Before deciding, consult your lawyer. Alternatively, the prosecutor might file the "trial information" before the preliminary hearing. If so, there won't be a preliminary hearing.


Your attorney tell you about your next court date. After your preliminary hearing happens (or after you receive the trial information,) you will have an  arraignment


Long before you raise the insanity defense, police will give reports to the county attorney's office. Then, the county attorney's office will review the information. After the prosecutor reads the reports, they will decide what offenses to charge you with. For instance, a prosecutor might charge you with a misdemeanor. Alternatively, they could accuse you of a felony.

Your defense lawyer will tell you what the government accused you of. Moreover, they will explain your rights. You also need to know how this could affect your criminal record. In short, they will tell you about the worst case scenario. A criminal lawyer will tell you more about the fines, terms of incarceration, and collateral consequences that might apply.

Your law firm will give you legal advice. Specifically, they will explain the pros and cons of taking your case to trial. After all, only you can decide whether or not to accept a plea offer. 

Finally, if a jury convicts you, you can probably appeal. The court of appeals hears appellate arguments. So does the Iowa Supreme Court. Because they review legal issues, they might find a constitutional problem. That means that the law can be illegal. Alternatively, the district court might have treated a legal law illegally. However, the right to appeal does not apply to simple misdemeanors. Ask your criminal defense attorney for more information.


What should I know about lawyers generally?

Attorneys completed their bachelor’s or 4-year degrees. Thereafter, they went to law school. One example is Drake University Law School. That school is in Des Moines.  Afterward, Iowa lawyers take the bar exam. Thereafter, a committee evaluates their character and fitness. The Iowa State Bar admits Iowa lawyers. The Iowa bar association regulates the legal profession.

Some lawyers and law firms do general practice. In light of that, they accept all kind of representation.  In contrast, some lawyers specialize in particular areas of law. For example, a lawyer might do only civil practice. When a lawyer does civil work, they might handle divorces. Additionally, the Iowa lawyer might represent small claims cases. Further, a civil practice lawyer could do personal injury work. In another case, the lawyer might focus on family law or child custody.

Alternatively, some lawyers practice only criminal defense.  Defense attorneys can discuss the insanity defense with you.  Some lawyers get even more particular. For instance, a lawyer might take only domestic violence defense. Another lawyer might focus on sex crime, sexual abuse, operating while intoxicated, child endangerment, child abuse, indecent exposure, theft, possession of controlled substances, sex crimes, marijuana, DUI defense, controlled substance offenses, arson, criminal mischief, vehicular homicide, drug offenses, traffic violations, violent crime or drunk driving. 

Many Iowa lawyers practice only in Iowa courts. The Iowa Code defines all Iowa crimes. The Iowa rules of criminal procedure control what happens in Iowa criminal justice cases.

Federal court is different. If you are facing federal charges for a federal criminal offense, make sure to let your Iowa lawyer know. Because Iowa federal courts are not state law courts in Iowa, your lawyer might refer you elsewhere. Federal prosecutors and federal judges use different procedural rules. Federal crimes are subject to federal sentencing.

What offenses exist in Iowa criminal law?

Criminal law offenses are misdemeanors or felonies. Class A felonies exist, but most people facing felony charges are facing a class B felony, a class C felony, or a class D felony. If you have questions about Iowa intimidation offenses, ask a lawyer.  The insanity defense can apply to any level of offense.

What can an Iowa insanity defense lawyer do for me?

When accused, contact an attorney or law firm. Make sure to call one who works with Iowa criminal law.

If there’s a warrant out for your arrest, your Iowa lawyer will help. In that case, you will coordinate with law enforcement. Self-surrender won't be as embarrassing as public arrest would be.

Your Iowa criminal lawyer will stay in touch with the county attorney’s office. That means they will let the prosecutor know whether you choose to exercise or waive your right to speedy trial.  Further, counsel can provide legal guidance. For example, you need to know whether it's a good idea to consider a plea agreement or to go to trial. They will talk to you about whether a judge or jury is likely to find a particular witness credible.

Your criminal lawyer will let you know what sort of jail time you might be facing if convicted. Moreover, they can explain how conviction impacts criminal history. Finally, they can discuss how the prosecutor might respond to your insanity defense argument.

Victim Resources

A Victim Services Support Program is available through the Iowa attorney general’s office.

Related Posts