Psychosis, Mens Rea, and Criminal Conviction: Part Four of a Five-Part Series

In my last post, I covered two out of hundreds of recent neuroimaging studies which empirically demonstrate the sensory malfunctions that occur during psychosis.  It is clear that during psychosis, people hear things that are not there, see things that are not there, and draw conclusions based off of things that are not there; and that these events can be seen using neuroimaging technology.  In short, it’s obvious that their senses are temporarily broken.  The question I would like to propose in this post is, Do these sensory malfunctions prevent sufficient capacity for rationality during a psychotic episode?

Concerning mental disorders and criminal law, Stephen Morse (2011) has commented, “Only if the person has sufficient capacity for rationality does the law leave him or her free … to bear the consequences of his or her actions. … This accords the person the greatest degree of dignity and respect” (p. 892-893).  The problem with psychosis, in this context, is that it is not a perpetual state of being – it comes and goes.  While a person living with a mental disorder involving psychosis may normally be fully rational, that rationality can totally collapse when his or her senses begin malfunctioning.  So, we are not asking whether or not a person living with a mental disorder can be rational; we are asking whether the state of psychosis renders a person irrational.

The capacity for rationality can be difficult to define, but I would propose we look to an old Notre Dame epistemologist for advice.  Alvin Plantinga (1993) has argued that a person is warranted in believing his or her beliefs only if, among other things, his or her cognitive faculties (including the senses) are working properly.  More concisely, a person should be considered rational only with the assumption that his or her faculties are properly functioning.  I think it was demonstrated in my last post that a person’s cognitive faculties are not working correctly during psychosis; so I would argue that psychosis clearly does render a person without sufficient capacity for rationality.  How does this argument apply to the implementation of a mens rea standard?

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I did not intend to punch a police officer five years ago; I intended to punch a hallucination of something else.  Unfortunately, I was convicted of assaulting a police officer, and it was left to the District Attorney and the Judge to figure out what to do with my situation.  A mens rea requirement, however, would require my state of mind during the incident be considered just as pertinent to the situation as the act itself.  In short, it would treat what I intended to do as just as important as what I actually did (Thompson, 2016).

As I have also mentioned in a previous post, the District Attorney and the Judge undoubtedly took my state of mind into account – something I will always be grateful for.  However, during my time as an intern at NAMI NC, I have heard from various legal professionals in the field that District Attorneys and Judges are growing somewhat tired of having to figure these situations out on their own (I don’t blame them – I’ve almost broken my own brain trying to figure out just my situation).  The question that logically follows, and the question I will consider in my fifth and final post, is how we can stop sending these types of cases to criminal courts?


Morse, S. J. (2011). Mental disorder and criminal law. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 101(6), 885-968.

Plantinga, A. (1993). Warrant and Proper Function. New York, NY: Oxford University.

Thompson, R. M. (2016). Mens rea reform: A brief overview [CRS Report]. Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, 1-19.

Written by: Jordan Parks, NAMI NC Intern