Opinion formation in evaluating sanity at the time of the offense: an examination of 5175 pre-trial evaluations

Behav Sci Law. 2004;22(2):171-86. doi: 10.1002/bsl.559.


Sanity evaluations are high-stake undertakings that explicitly examine the defendant's culpability for a crime and implicitly explore clinical information that might inform a plea agreement. Despite the gravity of such evaluations, relatively little research has investigated the process by which evaluators form their psycholegal opinions. In the current study, we explore this process by examining 5175 sanity evaluations conducted by a cohort of forensic evaluators in Virginia over a ten-year period. Our analyses focus on (i) the clinical, criminal, and demographic attributes of the defendant correlated with opinions indicative of insanity; (ii) the clinical content of the evaluations and the legal criteria referenced as the basis for the psycholegal opinion; (iii) the process and outcome differences in the sanity evaluations conducted by psychologists versus psychiatrists; and (iv) the consistency in these opinions over a ten year period. Analyses predicting an opinion of insanity indicate a positive relationship with psychotic, organic, and affective diagnoses and previous psychiatric treatment. Analyses also indicate a negative relationship with prior criminal history, drug charges, personality disorder diagnosis, and intoxication at the time of the offense. Modest racial disparities were observed with evaluators offering opinions that the defendant was insane more often for white than for minority defendants despite comparable psychiatric and criminal characteristics.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Criminal Psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Insanity Defense*
  • Interview, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Mental Competency / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Virginia