April 16, 2010
The Insanity Plea
People with mental deficiencies may defend themselves in the court of law by using the insanity plea. Possible result may be the escape or an alternation of some standard charges. The insanity defense traces its roots back to early Rome (Collins 1). Naturally, it has developed throughout history. It has urbanized in its overall meaning as well as its efficiency. During the defense’s presence, legal issues involving state laws and court proceedings have arisen. Although some people are truthfully unaware of reality and are incapable of mental or physical control, others merely use the defense as a way out of accepting their self-brought blame and the proper consequences of their actions (Valentine 2). The abuse of the insanity plea, as a result of its evolution, has increased to the point where one must wonder, is the insanity plea continually worthy of being a valid defense (Valentine 3)?
Obeying the law is mandatory. Unfortunately, some people who are mentally handicapped are incapable of willingly deciding to obey the law. These mentally handicapped people need a specialized punishment, not prison (Collins 1). In order to implement the proper punishment, the case itself should be found to qualify the standards of an insanity case, and insanity itself should be defined. In the 18th century, insanity meant for one to be “totally deprived of his understanding and memory and not know what he is doing anymore than an infant, a brute, or a wild beast”. In the 19th century, insanity was known to be “irresponsible, unpredictable, and often dangerous” (Peske 1). Charles Doe defines insanity as “the result of a certain pathological condition of the brain” and then goes on to say that “the tests and symptoms of this disease are no more matters of the law than the tests or symptoms of any other disease in animal or vegetable life” (Reznek 27). Precise medical tests, in fact, cannot be valid because insanity is a moral principal, not medical (Valentine 8). The judgment being about the defendant’s mind in the process of the crime makes it even more difficult to make a clear, accurate verdict. While judging the defendant’s current mental status may be difficult, judging his state of mind at a given point in the past comes to be an impossible task to achieve precisely (Crime 1). All that this means is that temporary insanity, dismissing one from knowing the reality of their act while they are briefly insane, is accepted. The criminal’s current state of mind may be completely different (Fersch 7). One must understand that incompetence is not the same concept as insanity, and defendants who are found to be incompetent receive mental assistance until they are competent and may return to trial (US 4). Over time, people who fall into the category of “insane” are defended by the plain reality that they either did not know their actions were wrong or they did not know why their actions were wrong (Martin 1).
Daniel M’Naughten, an unadorned woodworker, believed himself to be the victim of a plot linked with the pope and the British Prime Minister in 1843. He attempted to ambush the Prime Minister, Robert Peel. He accidentally shot Peel’s secretary who died. M’Naughten’s defense, including several psychiatrists’ testimonies, freed him of charges due to insanity. A public indignation and a panel of British judges followed, and the M’Naughten rule was established (Martin 1). The M’Naughten rule, originating nearly 200 years ago, is still the root of most insanity plea laws used in the present. Originating its earliest stages with “lunatics” in ancient Rome, the insanity plea developed throughout history (Collins 3). Later on, in the 13th century, “complete madness” was an official defense in England. In the 18th century it had evolved into a “wild beast” test that defended those who qualified as being “totally deprived of his understanding and memory so as not to know what he was doing, no more than an infant, a brute, or a wild beast” (US 5). In 1867 the Scottish contributed the insanity defense in the more specific form of “diminished capacity”; diminished capacity altogether avoids whether or not the defendant had criminal intent (Valentine 6). In 1876, England contributed “automatism”, a form of the insanity defense in which one has no bodily control (Reznek 29). After a group of assassins were found not guilty due to insanity, Queen Victoria declared a new verdict, “guilty but insane”, rather than being freed from charges. The queen’s personal contribution was carried out until 1964 (Peske 1). Before the 19th century, insanity trials didn’t regularly include a medical testimony. Differing greatly from today’s insanity trials’ procedures, doctors sometimes presented symptoms of a mentally ill person but didn’t examine the defendant, and insanity was viewed to be incurable (Collins 2). During the 19th century, lawyers and psychiatrists didn’t communicate very well. While lawyers believed insanity actions to be voluntary, psychiatrists said the actions were not (Reznek 25).
In 1981, the American nation as a whole was infuriated when John W. Hinckley succeeded in using the insanity defense after his attempt to assassinate President Reagan (Peske 1). America stepped in to the insanity plea in 1843 with the “irresistible impulse” plea for people who know what they’re doing and why it’s wrong but “just can’t help it”. In 1954 the United States Court of Appeals ruled that “An accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of a mental disease or defect”. Continuing in 1966, it was also ruled that “A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law” (Valentine 5).
Between 1965 and 1975, thirty-one “not guilty by reason of insanity” murderers were released in New York alone (Reznek 29). Another study taken from 1965 to 1976 showed a five hundred percent increase in successful insanity defenses (Valentine 3). The National Institute of Mental Health conducted a study of eight states in 1991. The findings showed the insanity plea to be used in less than one percent of all cases, and it was a success only twenty-six percent of the time. Within ten years and ten thousand cases, only sixteen people used the insanity plea, and success often came in the form of a bargain (Fersch 4). One study showed only one in four hundred insanity defense cases to be a success (Vatz 1). Overall, one forth of insanity defense cases result in the verdict “not guilty by reason of insanity”. In three fourths of those cases, the verdict “not guilty by reason of insanity” was deemed appropriate before the trial. The success of insanity plea cases greatly depends on the prosecutors consent as well as the defending lawyer, psychological testimony, and the state’s way of defining “insane” (Fersch 4).
The usage of the insanity plea relies solely on the individual state’s laws. Every state has its own way of determining whether or not one had mental control and responsibility while performing the crime. A main factor in a significant amount of state laws is the M’Naughten rule, also known as the “right/wrong” test. Although it was established in 1843, it is still used in twenty six states. It finds the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity if “at the time of committing the act, he was laboring 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 what he was doing was wrong” (Crime 2). Connecticut changed M’Naughten in the 1950’s saying “some mental disorders are so overpowering the individual is a victim of his psychopathology” (Peske 2). In 1962 a Model Standard was set out by the American Law Institute saying “a defendant is not held criminally responsible if at the time of his conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law” (Crime 2). The insanity defense was revised by Congress in 1984 saying “It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any federal statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense” (Collins 3). In 1986, the 8th amendment ruled that insane people couldn’t be executed, and states must meet standards when determining sanity (Henderson 121). As of 1994, some states have, with permission from the United States Supreme Court, chosen to do away with the insanity defense altogether (Martin 2). Although Montana, Idaho, and Utah don’t permit the insanity defense, the defendant may present a lack in mental state at the time of the crime. The result would be excuse from the guilt of the crime. Other states have deemed people capable of not being able to control themselves altogether due to “an irresistible impulse” (Crime 2).
Sentencing tends to bring up problems and controversy within the insanity plea. In 1974, Alvin Ford killed a police officer while robbing a restaurant. He was sentenced to death. While he was on death row, he developed a non-ignorable mental disorder. He was assessed and found competent. The mental testing didn’t fulfill requirements (Henderson 81). Capital punishment was found not to be forcible upon those who do not understand what they did and the result of what they did (Henderson 99). The court ruled that if a death row inmate who had been exempt from execution because of mental illness regained their mental capacity, the execution could proceed. The only issue was that inmates must, in reality, remain recklessly insane to stay living (Henderson 82). Ford’s execution was stopped in 1986 (Henderson 81). Controversy involving mentally retarded persons has also been brought to light by the Court saying retarded persons “have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but they do diminish their personal culpability” (Henderson 99). Judges, mental health professionals, and specially appointed boards may be used to determine the release of the mentally ill. Defendants used to end up spending longer amounts of time in a mental hospital than they would have under a regular prison sentence (Crime 4), but due to medical advancements, insane persons are being released more rapidly (Collins 1).
The fact that some people are incapable of knowing what was going on, incapable of determining right and wrong, and incapable of controlling their bodies is very real and very serious. Temporary insanity is greatly demonstrated by King Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible, Daniel 4:30-34. When the king became proud and ignorant of God, God made him like a wild beast living in the fields. Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity was restored when he acknowledged God again.
The insanity plea has brought mercy for many people. For example, a man named Charlson was a faithful father and husband. He threw his ten year old son out of the window and did not regain mental consciousness until he was driving away. After turning himself in to authorities, he was deemed not responsible for his actions because of a brain tumor. The judge said, “If he did not know what he was doing, if his actions were purely automatic, and his mind had no control over the movement of his limbs, if he was in the same position as a person in an epileptic fit, then no responsibility rests upon him at all, and the proper verdict is, not guilty” (Reznek, 30). In 1994, the insanity defense was also a success for a woman named Lorena Bobbitt. She severed part of her husband with a kitchen knife and received only three months of psychiatric assessment (Martin 3). This, as did Hinckley’s successful insanity plea in 1981, infuriated the public (Fersch 5).
The punishment of incompetent people may only produce mindless vengeance, but consequences must be enforced. The insanity defense has been abused to the point where the people who truly need it may not even receive it in some cases. Its standards and requirements changed so much over time that it has made a mockery of the whole defense. For example, The executive director of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Violent Crime, Jeffery Harris, said, “in any trial I’ve ever heard of, the defense psychiatrist always says the accused is insane, and the prosecution psychiatrist always says he’s sane. This happened invariably, in one hundred percent of the cases, thus far exceeding the laws of chance.” He goes on to say “The insanity defense is being used as a football and, quite frankly, you’d be better off calling Central Casting to get ‘expert psychiatric testimony’ in a criminal trial” (Valentine 1).
Fortunately, many insanity pleas used by people such as Dan White, William and Anthony Esposito, and John DuPont are unsuccessful. Dan White murdered two people over a city council position. The Esposito brothers, known killers, murdered a police officer in their pursuit and then acted like wild beasts creating disruption in the courtroom. Their execution sentence was decided in a one minute deliberation. John DuPont killed an Olympic wrestler living on his property and was charged with third degree murder (Fersch 5). If these people had escaped their proper punishment through the insanity plea, justice would have become a mockery. More and more people who are truly guilty are going without punishment. People who are incapable of controlling themselves are finding ways to walk away without the penalty they have brought upon themselves. An Assistant United States Attorney spoke of the insanity defense and its use: “The only time it’s used is when there is no question the accused committed the act, and the defense can think of nothing else to exonerate his client” (Valentine 7). It is very disappointing to see how intentionally the insanity defense is used to escape the consequences of breaking the law (Valentine 2). The insanity defense is inefficient. It no longer fulfills a positive purpose and holds a negative effect on society.
While choice people need some sort of legal help and special consequence as a result to their insanity, truly sane people have expanded and stretched the insanity defense to a hideously worthless level. With no exact definition or test of insanity in place, there is no way to determine who would fall into the category of being able to straightforwardly use the defense for its rightful purpose. The insanity defense is altogether unsound, unacceptable, and contains flaws in its reasoning.
Collins, Kimberly. “The john Hinckley Trial & Its Effect on the Insanity Defense”. Hinckley Trial. 3/16/10
“A Crime of insanity”. Frontline 3/16/10
Fersch, Ellsworth. Thinking About the Insanity Plea. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005.
Henderson, Harry. Capital Punishment. New York: Fact on File, Inc., 1991.
HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press, 1984.
Martin, John P.. “The Insanity Defense: A Closer Look”. The Washington Post. 3/16/10
Peske, Michael A.. “Insanity Plea: Doctors vs. Law”. The New York Times. 3/16/10
Reznek, Lawrie. Evil or Ill? London: Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005.
“US Supreme Court: Insanity Defense”. West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. 3/16/10
Valentine, Carol A. “The Insanity of the Insanity Defense”. 4/5/10
Vatz, Richard E.. “Accomodating the killer”. USA Today. Sept. 2008: 22-23.