The Insanity Plea Essay, Research Paper
In the world today, there are many mentally unbalanced humans, those who can t resist certain impulses due to their mental capacity. People who can t determine right from wrong or even people who cannot control their own self. Some of these people can be classified as criminals. They have done something unacceptable to society. How are these people judged? Is it fair to hold them responsible and seek to punish them? The courts in all civilized nations have accepted that those who are insane cannot be treated the same as a sane offender. This view has resulted in what we know today as The Insanity Plea. Offenders who are truly unbalanced can be found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. This is left to question, what consists of a truly mentally unbalanced human? Many Americans feel sane or slightly unbalanced offenders use the plea too easily. The plea is the only fair way of justice for the mentally unbalanced, but stricter rules and regulations should be assessed to prevent abuse of the plea.
In ancient societies, a person was judged whether they committed the crime or not. You were guilty or not guilty solely on the facts of the case. In the early thirteenth century, the insanity plea became known to the world. The king would grant pardons to those who were mentally defective and they would not have to serve a prison sentence or be executed . Little was known about mental illnesses and problems arose on the degree of insanity. The English came up with a plea of absolute madness, with a successful plea the defendant would be free from all charges. Absolute madness was an extremely general rule; therefore the English common law was created. This concept, the ability to determine right from wrong, was the basic guideline in judging insanity cases.
In 1843, the assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Robert Peel was the first time the insanity defense was used in a well-known political case. In this case, Daniel M Naghten intentionally, and with premeditation, killed an assistant to the Prime Minister. M Naghten claimed he was being persecuted by the Prime Minister and he pled insanity at the trial. Physicians testified for the defendant based on the behavior of M Naghten after the crime took place. The prosecution made many attempts at disproving the plea of insanity, by illustrating M Naghten s behavior in planning the assassination. The physicians were well respected and the prosecution agreed to stop the case and the defendant was declared insane. As expected, Queen Victoria and the House of Lords disapproved of the verdict. They called on fifteen judges of the common law courts to answer a series of questions regarding the law of insanity, as it was used in the case of Daniel M Naghten. Their answers became known and established as the M Naghten Rule. The rule consisted of two questions the jury must answer: (1) did the defendant know what he was doing when he committed the crime?; and (2) did the defendant understand that his actions were wrong? This test easily allowed a prosecutor to prove sanity by showing that the defendant understood the consequences of the action. In the M Naghten rule, mental illness is not an issue because medical evidence was very rare at the time. As technology changed, so did psychiatric knowledge and new theories of mental illnesses evolved. It became apparent that the M Naghten rule was ineffective. The rule was correct, but it only scratched the surface of insanity. Many revisions were made to the rule and soon it was completely thrown out .
In 1970, the American Law Institute (ALI) drafted a new test, in which the defense must prove that the defendant lacked the substantial mental capacity either to appreciate the criminality of their conduct or to conform their conduct to the requirements of the law. The new ALI test brings us to what is now the present insanity defense. The flexibility of the rule makes it possible to include different matters of insanity. Like every other rule, controversies erupted. The question was how flexible will the rule become until it finally snapped to pieces ?
Many Americans dislike the insanity plea because of the fact that the killer will be freed to do new violence. They feel that criminals use the insanity plea to dodge the consequence of their actions. For example, many people were distraught when the verdict was announced in the Hinckley case. On Monday, March 30, 1981, he stood on a crowded sidewalk in Washington, D.C. Anticipating the departure of President Regan, Hinckley waited with his fingers on the gun. As President Regan emerged from a crowd, Hinckley took advantage of an open and clear shot. In two seconds, Hinckley emptied the gun of six bullets; the bullets struck three officers including President Regan. The bullet that struck Regan was not a direct hit and he lived through the assassination attempt. When the trial began doctors recognized that Hinckley was psychotic. He had had a troubled past, kept to himself most of his life and would study books on Hitler. The defense freely admitted that Hinckley did commit the crime but he was not in control of himself at the time. There was enough evidence to prove that Hinckley was in fact insane at the time of the shootings and he was acquitted. The American people didn t know what to feel about the defense and were scared for a couple of reasons. First they knew Hinckley could be released from the mental hospital, possibly turn insane again and pose a threat to society once more. Second, the national attention of the trial and how a criminal escaped punishment through the insanity defense would encourage sane criminals to also hide behind the defense .
Who is to say that a defendant is sane or insane? Psychiatrists play an important role in the insanity defense, a difficult and debatable role that comes along with degrading criticism. Psychiatrists make two very important decisions in a case involving insanity. They decide if in fact the person is insane and they determine when medical treatment is no longer necessary and the former insane criminal is set free. How sure do psychiatrists have to be in order to determine a person insane and to what extent? Columnist Mike Royko made a pointed recommendation several years ago regarding the willingness of psychiatrist to release insane, but presumably cured killers. He stated Let the killers baby-sit for the children of doctors recommending their release . This is a great point against the insanity plea and for that reason, stricter rules should be enforced.
It is important to add the effects the insanity plea has on the family of the victim. It is obvious that a family will see no justice in a guilty by reason of insanity verdict, even when the killer is the definition of extreme insanity. It is extremely painful to know the killer is getting treatment, when you feel they should be getting the punishment they deserve. In this case, the families feel they have been cheated out and justice can only be received through understanding, by understanding mental illnesses and the effects it has on humans.
Although many Americans disagree with the insanity defense, the defense is still around, but only because it is fair and just for the truly mentally unbalanced. A person could be lost in his own world, not knowing the consequences of his actions or even lose control of his actions because of a mental disability. It is true that any criminal can plea insanity, but the chances of winning the plea are scarce. In popular fiction, movies and literature a defendant is always trying to get off scot-free by pleading insanity. The reality of this is not quite like fiction . First of all, the sure number of attempts at the insanity defense in fiction may cause someone to believe that this is a common occurrence. This is clearly not the case. An attempt to be found not guilty on the grounds are so rare that members of the criminal justice system could easily go their entire careers with out coming across a single case of this type. When the insanity defense is used it is typically with an individual with a profound mental illness, extremely acute schizophrenia. In this case you have an individual who has so departed from reality that they either do not know that what they are doing is wrong or they are not even aware of their actions.
The insanity defense does not provide the ‘free ticket’ to freedom that everyone thinks it does. The individual is still institutionalized and their freedom has been removed and they are required to stay within the hospital as if they were in prison. A few more rights and privileges may exist. In some cases, those who are guilty by reason of insanity spend more time incarcerated in a mental facility, than those who are sane and tried for the same crime spend in prison. So clearly this defense is not a ‘free ticket’ like many believe it is. Some individuals believe that all violent offenders have to be mentally ill in some form in order to commit their crimes. This may bring the need for this defense into question. This unique situation is limited and of use to only the most ill offenders, the offenders who would be detrimental to other prisoners and themselves if they were in the normal correctional system .
The insanity plea is clearly needed. However, individuals should not fear it as a way for criminals to get off free for their crimes and be allowed to harm again in society. As usual, fiction has clearly messed up the issue.