Is the Insanity Defense Just Plain Madness?

“If you commit a big crime then you are crazy, and the more heinous the crime, the crazier you must be. Therefore you are not responsible, and nothing is your fault.”

Whether these words spoken by Wall Street Journal writer Peggy Noonan can be considered gospel or not, there is certainly something to be said about the justification of crimes with mental illness. Since the 19th century, the insanity defense has been around in some form or another and has evolved along with our understanding and acceptance of mental illness.

During the 13th century in England, Lord Bracton established the very principle of mental deficiency in human behaviour. According to him, some people didn’t know what they are doing and acted in a manner “as to be not far removed from the brute”. Based on this, insanity has come to mean that a person lacks the awareness of what he or she is doing and, as a direct result, can’t have the capacity to form intent to do wrong and thus holds no technical guilt. This “wild beast” standard (so-called as an animal can’t identify right from wrong) was the minimum insanity requirement in England until 1843.

Read on to discover what variations of these standards subsequently emerged (some of which are still used today), and by the article’s conclusion maybe you will be able to answer the highly-contested question: is the insanity defense just plain madness?

The M’Naghten rule

Edward Drummond, secretary to England’s Prime Minister at the time, was shot and killed by a Scottish woodcutter called Daniel M’Naghten in 1843. M’Naghten thought that he was actually shooting the Prime Minister and was driven by the belief that there was there was a plot against himself.

During the trial M’Naghten’s attorney argued that ongoing delusions had led to a breakdown of moral sense and a complete loss of self-control. Witnesses were called to testify for the fact that M’Naghten imagined he was under persecution. Based on the evidence presented, the jury found him not guilty on the grounds of insanity.

Following the trial, an edict, known as the M’Naghten rule, was introduced. It stated:

“To establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must clearly be proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing was wrong”

Critics of this rule state that it is far too rigid and would only ever apply fully to those with severe mental illnesses.


The policeman at the elbow test

Based on these criticisms, additional criteria were established for the insanity defense — it was called the policeman at the elbow test or the irresistible impulse test. This was based on the premise that if a person would have committed the very same crime while a policeman was standing right next to them, then the act could be classified as an irresistible impulse as no sane person would commit a crime in front of low enforcement.

In court terms, if someone could prove that “by reason of duress of mental disease he had so far lost the power to choose between right and wrong, and to avoid doing the act in question, as that his free agency was at the time destroyed.” This test put an added emphasis on free will.


The Durham test

The scope of psychological assessment of the mental state of defendants widened even further in 1954 with the introduction of the Durham rule. This rule stated that a person could not be held responsible for a crime if his act was the “product of a mental disease or defect”. While criticised for being ambiguous, this rule was adopted by a number of states in the United States.

By 1972, the Durham test was declared an ineffective method of assessing a defendant’s “insanity” as it was simply too broad despite attempts to streamline the definitions and applications.

An example of where the ambiguity surrounding this idea of “diminished responsibility” resulted in a verdict that ignited riots across San Francisco was the case of former police officer Dan White. He was accused of the murders of Mayor George Moscone and an administrative aide named Harvey Milk. These murders occurred at midday inside City Hall so police were not short of witnesses that saw White commit these crime. Instead, at the trial, his defense claimed that he was suffering a mental breakdown brought on by a series of events in his personal life, rendering him temporarily insane.

His attorney argued that a period of severe depression and a change in diet to high sugar food put him into an altered mental state that changed his behaviour. As a result he was convicted as manslaughter and received a much lighter sentence.


Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984

Have you seen the incredibly famous video of former president of the United State Ronald Reagan and several of his aides being shot live on television?

On the 30th of March, 1981, a man called John Hinckley attempted to assassinate the president in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster after years of stalking and writing to her. Nearly the entire world saw the shooting, if not live, on constant replay over the next few weeks.

After a trial that lasted seven weeks, during which several psychiatrists and other experts testified, Hinckley found not guilty by reason of insanity. There was an outcry following this verdict, many people were baffled that a man who shot the president in front of millions of people could be found not guilty.

In the years following this trial, many states changed their laws regarding insanity pleas. Utah and Idaho even abolished this as a defense entirely. Congress also passed the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 whereby responsibility was transferred to the defense to prove insanity (rather than the prosecution to disprove as it had been before). Furthermore, evidence for insanity has to be clear and convincing rather than simply likely. Now, as with the the M’Naghten rule only those suffering severe mental illness can apply this.


But can we really define insanity?

Although people throughout history have attempted to define insanity as it applies to legal proceedings, is it even truly possible to define this?

Consider Jeffrey Dahmer: while on trial for the murder and mutilation of at least thirteen young men, his attorney attempted to plead him not guilty by reasons of insanity but this was not accepted. Surely a man who poured acid over his victims dissected them and preserved their heads and genitals should be classed as legally insane?

This is where the disconnect occurs: although Dahmer suffered from a mental disorder (borderline personality disorder and schizotypal personality disorder), it was the fact that he was aware that his actions were wrong that lead to this plea being denied.

This is the reality of the insanity defense: difficult to plead and almost never successful. Ultimately, only a jury can decide the issue of insanity in specific cases. Laymen who have no training in the field who rarely come into contact with the mentally ill end up making long lasting judgements based on constantly shifting criteria. Perhaps this, above all else, is the most controversial aspect of the insanity defense.

Your turn:Do you think the insanity is a reasonable defense? Or, do you think that this plea should be abolished all together? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.



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