⚖ Criminal defendants can be found 'not guilty by reason of insanity'

❗ This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card that many might believe it is

👩‍⚖️ A New Jersey man has appealed his sentence because he faces a lifetime of treatment

For a person on trial, the words "not guilty" can mean freedom and vindication. But in New Jersey, there's one way those same words can land someone in custody for the rest of their life.

In most cases, suspects on trial can either be found guilty or not guilty. Going to trial carries an inherent risk as being convicted can result in hefty fines or years in prison depending on the charges.

Many cases never see the inside of a courtroom. Charged individuals will often plead guilty to lesser charges than the offenses they initially faced. In return for avoiding messy court proceedings, prosecutors often seek and judges commonly grant lighter sentences to suspects who admit their guilt.

But a rare exception is a plea of "not guilty by reason of insanity," or NGRI.

Insanity plea in NJ

If a person is found NGRI in the Garde State, he or she could face up to life imprisonment.

An offender who is ruled mentally ill can be involuntarily committed for up to the maximum sentence that a conviction would carry. The individual would then undergo periodic reviews, known as Krol hearings, to determine if involuntary commitment should continue.

A Superior Court appellate panel recently reinforced this standard on Nov. 30 when it upheld the sentencing of a mentally ill man who murdered his father.

In 2002, a court accepted that Michael Vandenberg was a "schizophrenia paranoid type" who was aware of his actions while killing his father but was so delusional that he did not realize what he was doing was wrong.

A judge found Vandenberg not guilty by reason of insanity on first-degree murder and weapons charges. He was acquitted but was found to pose "a danger to himself and to

For over 20 years, Vandenberg has been involuntarily committed at the Ann Klein Forensic Center, a 200-bed psychiatric hospital in Trenton for the criminally insane.

In 2002, a first-degree murder conviction carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. This means Vandenberg may remain on Krol status for the remainder of his life. However, he could be released following his next Krol hearing if a court finds that he is no longer a danger to himself or others.

Rick Rickman is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at richard.rickman@townsquaremedia.com

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