Professor Mary Lou Hall
Writing Assignment 3
2 May, 2011
Insanity Defense Reform
The insanity defense is a major debate in the criminal justice system. In a survey of the public in 1986 it was found that, “Nine out of every ten respondents agree that the insanity defense is a loophole allowing too many guilty people to go free” (Hans). Even though the insanity defense is a small statistic, big discussion have arisen from it. In an article it is stated that, “the reality is that the insanity defense is used in only 1% of criminal cases, and it is used successfully in only 10-25% of those” (Torry, and Billick). The insanity defense is necessary for fair due process, however, it needs to be reformed in order to better suit the needs of society. A standard definition for insanity and reevaluation of the role of psychologists in trial are needed in order for the insanity defense to be reformed in a way that is both acceptable to the society and beneficial to the defendant.
The first use of the insanity defense is not known, but it has been determined that it was during the time of Ancient Greece. The modern concept of insanity did not enter criminal law until the M’Naghten case in 1843. Daniel M’Naghten was a man that tried to assassinate the Prime Minister of England because he thought that the government was conspiring against him. M’Naghten ended up killing the Prime Minister’s assistant, mistaking him for the Prime Minister. M’Naghten was acquitted because he was considered insane and paranoid at the time of the murder. The case led to rules of how to define insanity during a trial. The M’Naghten rules are a list of sets of defects of the mind that affected the accused person’s brain during a crime (Allnutt, Samuels, and O’Driscoll). The rules created the first “not guilty by reason of insanity verdict”. Since the M’Naghten rules were created, they have quickly become the standard test for if a defendant is insane. The rules stated, “To establish a defense on the grounds of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act, the accused was operating under such a defect of reason, from a disease of the mind, as to not 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” (Allnutt, Samuels, and O’Driscoll).
Reform for the insanity defense became popular among the public after the trial of John Hinckley in 1981. Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. When he was acquitted on the basis of not guilty by reason of insanity, the public began to call for reform. People did not understand how a person who attempted to murder the president could not have gone to jail. The public’s opinion after the Hinckley trial has been widely researched. Most of the public did not agree with the verdict: “an ABC News poll conducted the day following the verdict revealed that three-quarters of the Americans surveyed felt ‘justice had not been done’ in the Hinckley case” (Hans, and Slater). Many felt that he should be both punished for his crime and treated for his mental illness. Furthermore, most of the public believed that judges and juries have a hard time determining if defendants are insane (Hans). This kind of reaction called for a better way to define insanity.
In criminal law there is not an agreed upon definition of insanity. For the most part, people think that defendants who have a mental illness or are psychotic are insane. However, “…psychosis does not equal insanity. It is very possible for a defendant to be psychotic but not considered insane. It is equally possible, though less likely, for a defendant to be found insane but not meet the qualifications for psychosis” (Torry, and Billick). Problems like this frequently arise because of the abundance of definitions of insanity. The hardest part of developing a definition for insanity is where to draw the line. When asked in a survey to define insanity after the Hinckley trial, Valerie Hans a social psychologist found that, “Only one of our 434 respondents gave a reasonably good approximation of the Model Penal Code definition of legal insanity which was used in the Hinckley case” (Hans, and Slater). There needs to be better education for the general public in order for the insanity defense to continue.
The idea of blame is frequently called into question during trials involving the insanity defense. If we accept that free will exists, then we need to decide as a society what constitutes moral right and wrong. “…does knowledge of wrongfulness mean ‘legally’ wrong or ‘morally ‘ wrong? Is the test for ‘wrongfulness’ a test of whether or not he or she knew it was legally wrong but feel morally obliged to act, or is the test whether or no the person knew it was wrong in both a legal and moral sense?” (Allnutt, Samuels, and O’Driscoll). These questions lead to the consideration of mens rea in cases. Mens rea, translated to mean guilty mind, refers to the intention to commit a wrongful act. For someone to be guilty of an offense they need actus reus, the wrongful act, and mens rea. Therefore, when a person is said to be insane, they do not have mens rea; and henceforth, are not guilty by reason of insanity.
Mens rea cannot be the only thing considered in a definition of insanity. An example of when more needs to be considered is: if a defendant intended to commit the crime, however, they were in psychotic state. A jury could say the defendant was in the right mind because he planned the crime but the delusions he was having caused him to not feel guilty. This brings the question of whether this defendant is insane or not. On one hand, he was in right mind enough to intend to commit the crime. However, he planned the crime under morally incorrect delusions. Situations like this call for further tests of insanity besides mens rea. The American Psychological Association needs to come together with lawmakers to make official rules for insanity defense trials. There have been several laws regarding the trials but there needs to be an official definition of insanity and a universal test for insanity. If this does not happen, then criminals could take advantage over the disputes and commit a crime in a state where they are more likely to be acquitted than in a state that has no insanity defense option at all. In order for there to be a consensus on an insanity definition: mens rea, psychologists’ opinions, and social views must be taken into consideration. Once there is an understanding between the public, law, and medical communities then juries can be informed enough to make decisions regarding insanity.
The definition of insanity is not the only thing that needs to be reformed. The role of psychologists needs to be reformed as well. For example, look at a popular insanity defense case. Is a mother who drowns her kids guilty of murder? Most would say, yes. However, what if it was discovered that she was under the delusion that her kids were sinners and that killing them would send them to heaven instead of allowing them to sin and go to hell? This is where the insanity defense arrises. The case mentioned above is the one of Andrea Yates who drowned her five children in their home bathtub. One would immediately start to think that Yates is insane because of her delusion that supposedly led her to kill her kids. She also had a long history of mental illness and had been to several psychiatric institutions. However, Yates had a lot of rational moments that call into question the insanity defense. She was aware that killing her kids was a sin and was wrong and immediately called authorities after doing so. Moreover, the murders seemed to be premeditated since she chose a time in the day when no one else would be at her home. (Doherty) The prosecution called upon a psychiatrist, Park Dietz, to talk to and evaluate Yates. He determined her to be sane because she knew at the time what she was doing was wrong. Dietz even insinuated that Yates had gotten the idea from an episode of Law and Order. It was discovered a little later that there was no episode of Law and Order that involved a woman drowning her kids and being found not guilty by reason of insanity. This little mistake in testimony was big enough to have been able to sway the jury; so the case was overturned.
This mistake in testimony led to the discussion of whether expert witnesses such as psychologists and psychiatrists should be allowed in insanity defense trials. This debate was brought up originally during the Hinckley trial when many people did not think that psychologists were useful. In a survey conducted by Hans, “91.2% think that psychiatrists should testify about a defendant’s mental condition in insanity trials. About half however, believe that ‘if psychiatrists were paid enough, they will say anything about a defendant’s sanity’” (Hans). These responses showed that while the public thought that psychiatrists should be used somehow in an insanity trial, they only had, “modest faith in the abilities of psychiatrists to determine legal insanity” (Hans). When the Yates’ case was overthrown, people began to question the use of psychologists again. One error in a psychologist’s testimony had caused the case to be thrown out and eventually overturned.
If the psychologist had not testified at all, what would the outcome of Yates’ case been? Questions like this cast doubt upon the role of psychiatrists. How much of a diagnosis should an psychiatrist be allowed to give? Another question is the use of multiple or competing psychiatrists. It is reported that, “agreement on whether or not a defendant has psychosis rarely approaches a level as high as 90% even when the clinicians come from the same background” (Torry, and Billick). In the end, it is up to the jury to decide whether the defendant is insane or not. The psychiatrist may be allowed to give his opinion or speculation, but should not be allowed to give an official diagnosis. “For the most part, what scientific expert witnesses in such cases do is to interpret actions, not analyze objective facts” (Doherty). If definitive statements are made by psychiatrists, they might sway the jury; who are the ultimate deciders.
Ultimately, many things need to be done in order to reform the insanity defense. Reform will not happen overnight. There is hope for change since there has already been so much reform since the M’Naghten case. If there is a standard definition of insanity, the jury would be able to make more informed decisions regarding the sanity of the defendant. Also, not letting psychologists make absolute statements will allow the jury to make the decision of insanity for themselves. Combining these two things will allow the insanity defense to be reformed as to improve justice for future generations.
Allnutt Stephen, Anthony Samuels, and Colman O’Driscoll. “The Insanity Defence: from Wild Beasts to M’Naghten.” Australasian Psychiatry 15.4 (2007): 292-298. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.
Doherty, Brian. “You Can’t See Why on an fMRI.” Reason 39.3 (2007): 34-43. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web 11 Apr. 2011.
Hans, Valerie. “An Analysis of Public Attitutudes Toward the Insanity Defense.” Criminology 24.2 (1986): Print.
Hans, Valerie and Dan Slater. “John Hinckley Jr. And the Insanity Defense: The Public’s Verdict.” Public Opinion Quarterly. 47. (1983): Print.
Hathaway, Mar. “The Moral Significance of the Insanity Defence.” Journal of Criminal Law. 73.4 (2009): 310-317. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 9 Apr. 2011.
Torry, Zachary D., and Stephen B. Billick. “Overlapping Universe: Understanding Legal Insanity and Psychosis.” Psychiatric Quarterly 81.3 (2010): 253-262. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.