The Insanity Defense Essay, Research Paper
Equal justice for the unequal. # For these few who cannot be held accountable for there actions because of mental disability or disease this statement is surly there savuor. The ideal in a free society is that all of its members shall be equal under the law they have chosen to govern them, that they shall share the same rights and responsibilities, and that if they violate their laws they will be punished no differently than their peers, and judged according to a collective sense of justice rather than by the individuals of society. But what about the individual who does not realize he/she has committed a crime against society? The question that is raised here is not along the lines of should an individual be punished for his/her crime, but more on the matter of did the individual know that the crime, which he/she had committed, was wrong. This is where the fine line between the guilty and the legally insane is created. There has long been a strong belief that persons who commit crimes as a result of mental illness should not be held criminally responsible because they lack the criminal intent to commit the acts; this belief forms the core of the insanity defense today in the United States. The insanity defense is a plea option in which the defendant seeks acquittal for the alleged criminal offense by reason of insanity.
In this paper I will discuss the history of the insanity defense and the controversy that now surrounds the issue in today s society. I will start by giving an historical perspective on the formation of the insanity defense, followed by the landmark trial of Daniel McNaughton, which established the guidelines that would set the standard for nearly a century to come in determining the sanity of the defendant. Lastly, I will discuss the current controversy in American society over the use of the insanity plea in the American criminal justice system.
Throughout most of history there has been no specific criteria for the insanity defense, after all, it was not necessary in a relatively small community where everyone knew the offender. Ancient Hebraic law stated simply that idiots, lunatics, and children below a certain age ought not to be held criminally responsible, because they could not distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and where thus blameless in the eyes of God and man. The Greek and Roman legal texts say nothing at all on the matter, though a section of Plato s Laws specifically provides that if a criminal defendant is senile, a child, or is proven insane, he should be responsible for no more than the payment of civil damages, except that if he has killed someone and his hands are polluted by murder, he must depart to a place in another country and live there in exile for a year, #
In the centuries to follow, the instructions that were actually given in courts on how to deal with the insanity defense varied enormously. Most judges then, as now, had very little experience with insanity cases or madmen, and were forced to rely on whatever sources they could find. Unfortunately, many statements originally intended as illustrative arguments rather than exclusive definitions of insanity were adopted in this way by the legal profession and transformed through repetition into standardized rules. Thus it was stated, that a madman lacks mind and reason, and is not much removed from a brute # The most common definition used to define insanity was the knowledge of good and evil test.
In the seventeenth-century, legal commentators Edward Coke and Matthew Hale both recognized the difficulty of defining the range of insanity. Coke pointed out that there were not only idiots and the chronically insane, but episodic lunatics, who were sometimes mad but who, during lucid intervals, must be held accountable for their crimes. Hale also added those suffering from partial insanity, where the lunatic had an intact use of reason on most subjects. By the late seventeenth century, the insanity defense was firmly in place. The insanity defense was no longer just an exemption from the law based on sympathy and assessment of the prisoner s mental state. It was part of the law; as Matthew Hale put it a system of criminal law that required a guilty mind for conviction must necessarily acquit those who were out of their minds, who were inadvertently led into crime by the most innocent of intentions. #
The theories of Coke and Hale had a great influence on legal thinking about the insanity defense, but its true development occurred in the courtroom, where the statements of counsel and judges set the stage for what would take place at gripping trials. A sequence of English cases, beginning in 1724 and culminating in 1843 with the trial of Daniel McNaughton, firmly established not only the precise test of insanity, but laid a pattern of trial tactics that has changed little since.
The trial of Daniel McNaughton in 1843 set the standards for years to come. On January 20, 1843, Edward Drummond, the very popular private secretary to the Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, was shot and killed at point-blank range in the back while walking down the street, by a man named Daniel McNaughton. After being arrested only moments after committing his crime, a plea of insanity was drawn from the defendant. Solicitor General Sir William Webb Follett, was the leader of the prosecution for Tory.
The prosecution sought to prove sanity by demonstrating that McNaughton had behaved rationally in his actions to kill Sir Robert Peel (the man who McNaughton intended on killing). McNaughton s mistake was understandable, since Edward Drummond and Sir Robert Peel resembled one another, and Drummond lived at the Prime Minister s residence and often rode in his employer s carriage. McNaughton had spent about two weeks hanging out on steps and doorways around Whitehall where the crime was committed. When asked what he was doing there, he told plausible lies such as that he was waiting there for someone, or that he was a policeman. Thus he was sane enough to tell falsehoods, and recognized the need for averting suspicion. But the Solicitor General Sir William Webb Follett neglected to mention the defendant s lack of plans for escape, he having opened fire on a busy street in broad daylight, with a policeman nearly at his elbow.
In response to the prosecution, the defense countered with a quotation from Roscoe s Criminal Evidence indicating that the issue could be much more subtle than a simple question of intellectual awareness of right and wrong, Although a prisoner understands perfectly the distinction between right and wrong, yet if he labors, as is generally the case, and is thereby incapable of applying it correctly to his own conduct, he is in that state of mental aberration which renders him not criminally answerable for his actions………. #
This statement applied to McNaughton seemed to be true, since though he was intelligent in some ways, there was strong evidence that he had suffered from paranoid delusions for many years. McNaughton told the journeyman who bought his business that spies prevented him from obtaining work.
One of the witnesses at the trial was Dr. E.T. Monro, who had examined McNaughton following the crime, and from giving an account of McNaughton s mental state, was convinced that he was insane. Two more physicians testified and agreed with Dr. Monro that McNaughton was insane.
With the testimony from Dr. Monro and the two physicians, Daniel McNaughton was declared insane and committed to an insane asylum. The public and Queen Victoria were not happy with the verdict so fifteen judges were summoned to the house of the Lords on May 26, 1843, and asked five questions concerning knowing right from wrong. The judges came up with the first specific test to be applied by the jury to test weather someone is capable of pleading for insanity, To establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly 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 it he did know it, that he did not know that he was doing was wrong. #
This first test that the McNaughton trial provided was a grand step in determining weather a defendant to be insane or not. It was the first form of specific guidelines to be followed and the first standard that was set in order to judge someone on the grounds of the insanity defense.
The problems with the McNaughton trial s definition of insanity was that the terms know and wrong were to general and left room for interpretation, and it was to restrictive to excuse responsibility only on the basis of certain abnormal conditions. In order to tighten these terms a number of other tests were formed from various rules such as the product test and irresistible impulse to the increasingly favored American Law Institute formulation which excuses one form their actions by saying that as a result of mental disease or defect…. One lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. # When the American Law Institute as a result of the Durham rule approved the final version of the Model Penal Code in 1961, it provided a determination of insanity by reference to the particular behavior disorder of the individual case. This was done through the introduction of the word substantial because it eliminated a need to show total impairment of cognitive or control capacities.
Our current understanding and interpretation of the insanity defense seems to come from John Hinckley Jr. s acquittal, by reason of insanity, in the shooting of President Ronald Reagan on June 21, 1982. The jury s verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity set loose a huge public outcry throughout the nation. People asked, How could a person be found not guilty and escape punishment for an assassination attempt on the president of the United States of America which was witnessed by millions of people on television?
A great display of outrage from the American public towards the Hinckley acquittal brought forth swift emotional demands for changes in the current insanity defense laws. In the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, Congress shifted the burden from the prosecution (government), to the defense to affirmatively prove the existence of the insanity defense by a standard of clear and convincing # evidence, and Congress also restricted the use of the insanity defense in federal court. This reform somewhat helped to ease the mind of the American public.
So, why then are people still so angry about the use of the insanity defense in today s American criminal justice system? Despite its long, established legal history, its use has increasingly come under attack by the general public, by politicians, and by members of the criminal justice and mental health systems. One of the reasons for the overwhelming controversy in American society is the widespread misconception that the insanity defense is used all the time. National studies have shown that fewer then 1 percent of defendants charged with felonies use the insanity defense, and fewer than 25 percent of that 1 percent are found not guilty by reason of insanity. Americans have also become so hostile to the possibility that someone might get away with murder that a modern time jury would probably reject the insanity plea if used; not to mention the lack of faith Americans have in our ability to rehabilitate criminals through our rehabilitation and psyiactric wards.
Two alternatives to the use of the insanity defense in the American justice system that have gained political popularity include its abolishment and the addition of a guilty but mentally ill verdict. The abolishment of the insanity defense would propose that everyone should be held accountable for his or her criminal actions, regardless of the presence of mental illness. This position however, is in direct contrast to a basic principle of our criminal justice system, that criminal intent must be established for a defendant to be convicted of a criminal act.
About 17 states now allow a verdict of guilty but mentally ill, which holds a defendant responsible while providing for mental health treatment in prison. The verdict s criticizers argue that guilty but mentally ill is essentially a fraud that does little to guarantee treatment but a lot to assure society s conscience. Presently, two-thirds of the states require that the defendant bear the ultimate burden of persuasion that he/she was insane thus using the verdict of guilty but mentally ill . At least three states-Montana, Idaho, and Utah-have abolished the insanity defense entirely, but some evidence that those who would have used the plea are now just found incompetent to stand trial and end up in the same hospitals. These states however, do admit evidence of mental disorder for the purpose of providing that the defendant did not have the special knowledge or intent required for conviction of the offense charged.
In this paper I will discuss the history of the insanity defense and the controversy that now surrounds the issue in today s society. I will start by giving an historical perspective on the formation of the insanity defense, followed by the landmark trial of Daniel McNaughton, which established the guidelines that would set the standard for nearly a century to come in determining the sanity of the defendant. Lastly, I will discuss the current controversy in American society over the use of the insanity plea in the American Justice system.
Throughout history, the abnormality of mental illness and those whom suffer from its alter-reality are forever entangled in the ever so complex changing web of socialistic views that society deems fit for them. For, that the mentally ill hold no true value or place in society, but otherwise are seen as problems that have to be dealt with in whatever means seem fit. Society does not wish to punish the truly mentally innocent, but on the other hand, the fact that the defendant was insane neither diminishes the wrongfulness of his/her act nor consoles the victim who suffered from it. Those who satisfy the criteria for legal insanity who do not know the difference between right and wrong, who lack the capacity to keep their behavior under control-are the people society should fear the most. Without the legal defense of insanity, the criminal law would be deprived of an essential instrument for determining those who are actually mentally ill and fall subject to its jurisdiction. It would be very odd for us to feel ourselves entitled to less control over those who could not control themselves than we have over those who simply did not. There are no quick or easy solutions to the problem of crime and the mentally ill, but if one can distinguish which questions ought to be asked and where to ask them, the answer to the problem may become that much clearer.