The Defense of Insanity in Texas

In South Carolina, Timothy Jones Jr. was  convicted and sentenced to death for murdering his 5 children, ranging in age from 1 to 8. He plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Let’s discuss this case and the insanity defense in Texas.

Evidence introduced in the trial indicates that Mr. Jones was pulled over for a traffic stop in Mississippi when officers noticed the smell of bleach and decomposition. Mr. Jones eventually lead investigators to where he buried the bodies of his 5 children in Alabama. He confessed to the killing, saying he believed the children were going to kill him and “feed him to the dogs.” Mr. Jones’s attorneys told jurors their client had schizophrenia and did not know right from wrong, and asked jurors to find him not guilty by reason of insanity. Jurors ultimately disagreed, and found the crime worthy of the ultimate punishment.

The insanity defense is on the books in various forms in every state, and Texas is no exception. A previous version was used by lawyers Melvin Belli and Joe Tonahill in the Jack Ruby Trial (Listen here to my podcast – a daily recap of the Jack Ruby trial). “Manson Family” leader Charles “Tex” Watson used California’s version of the insanity defense in his trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders in August, 1969. (Listen here to my podcast – “A Murderous Design: Tex and Charlie,” including my interview with prosecutor Stephen Kay).

The current version of the insanity defense in Texas is codified in Section 8.01 of the penal code:

It is an affirmative defense to prosecution that, at the time of the conduct charged, the actor, as a result of severe mental disease or defect, did not know that his conduct was wrong.

That means the defense must prove three things: 1) at the time of the killing 2)the defendant had a severe mental disease or defect that 3) caused him not to know his conduct was wrong. Because it is an affirmative defense, the Defendant has the burden to prove insanity by a preponderance of the evidence.

The Evidence offered to prove that a person has a severe mental disease or defect comes in a variety of different forms: a qualified expert who examined the defendant; medical records; mental health records; testimony by friends and family; police officers who personally interacted with the defendant. Evidence normally offered by lawyers to prove or disprove the that the defendant knew or did not know his conduct was wrong under 8.01 focuses on the conduct comprising the crime itself: planning; procuring weapons; evidence of flight; covering up the crime scene; disposing of the weapons or the bodies. Statements made by a defendant immediately before, during and immediately after are also vitally important: any bizarre statements or ideations; statements to 911 operators; statements to friends, family, co-workers, or police; statements or posts attributable to the defendant on social media have become increasingly valuable in these types of cases.

For more information on the Timothy Jones, Jr. trial, click here to see the video archive of each phase of the trial by the Law and Crime Network, from opening statements through closing arguments.  You can also read this article written by Jeffrey Collins as published in USA today, or this one by Carla Field for WYFF-TV in Greenville. Finally, click here for an interesting read on the Insanity defense among the states besides Texas.