The Insanity Defense

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When someone commits a crime, he or she may use mental illness as a defense. This is called an insanity plea or insanity defense. What the insanity defense does is try to give the alleged perpetrator a fair trial. At least in extreme cases, society agrees with this principle. The problem is where do we draw the line. Under what circumstances is a person considered insane, and when are they not? The trouble with the insanity defense in recent years is the assumption that virtually all criminals have some sort of mental problem. One important point is that the crime itself, no matter how appalling, does not demonstrate insanity. Today, the insanity defense has become a major issue within the legal system. If the defendant is clearly out of touch with reality, the police and district attorney ordinarily agree to bypass the trial and let the defendant enter a mental hospital.

On the other hand, if the defendant has no serious signs of mental illness, the defense attorneys will not attempt an insanity defense. This is because they know that juries are reluctant to accept it. Basically, the only way for a lawyer to prove his client’s insanity is to try to project what his client was thinking (or not thinking) at the time that the crime was committed. This is usually done by enlisting the testimonies of a psychologists or psychiatrists, who are known as “expert witnesses.”

Both legal and mental health professionals have long struggled to establish a clear and acceptable definition of insanity. Insanity is a legal term, not a psychological or medical one. The Sarasons prefer to use the term “maladaptive behavior” instead of insane or insanity. Maladaptive behavior is, “behavior that deals inadequately with a situation, especially one that is stressful” (5). Adaptation is the way people balance what they do and want to do, and what the environment/community requires of them. Successful adaptation depends on a person’s stress (situations that impose demands on him or her), vulnerability (likelihood of a maladaptive response), and coping skills (techniques that help him or her deal with difficulties/stress) (5). Consider the recent school shootings as an
example. Students who are teased and bullied are experiencing stress. Some students
have low vulnerability and choose to talk about the situation with a parent or teacher, which is a good coping strategy.

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"The Insanity Defense." 23 Nov 2017
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Other students may have high vulnerability and poor coping skills. These students are more likely to respond maladaptively by taking a gun to school and shooting the classmates who bullied them.

Maladaptive behavior that leads to criminal conduct has been around since the
beginning of time. The Greeks assigned a guardian to each mentally ill person for life. The guardian was held responsible for the actions of that person. If a mentally ill person committed a crime, his or her guardian was punished. In medieval times, people considered insanity to be a severe punishment from God. An insane person was thought to be separate from God and without any will or reason, so he or she could not be punished for committing a crime. The idea of using an “expert witness” to verify the mental status of an alleged criminal began during the witchcraft trials, between 1400 and 1700. Europe has never held the mentally ill responsible for their crimes. English law, however, has always held the mentally ill responsible for their crimes. To the English, intent and motive were not the issues. The M’Naghten case changed the way the English viewed legal insanity (4).

One of the oldest, and perhaps most famous, definitions of legal insanity is the
M’Naghten rule, written in Britain in 1843. Daniel M’Naghten murdered Prime Minister
Sir Robert Peel's secretary in England in 1843. M’Naghten claimed that during the
murder, he believed it was Sir Robert Peel he was killing. At the trial, M’Naghten's
lawyer convinced the judge that M’Naghten suffered from a mental disorder that
prevented him from knowing his actions were wrong. The lawyer used testimony given by
a psychiatrist and excerpts from a book called "A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of
Insanity,” written by an American doctor named Isaac Ray. This was the first insanity
defense case in which an acquittal was granted based on the use of “expert” testimony, not
an eyewitness account. This case also provided England’s legal system with a method to
test alleged criminals for legal insanity. To be regarded as legally insane under the
M’Naghten rule, alleged criminals must be so disordered that they do not realize they are
committing a criminal act. A psychiatrist (or “expert witness”) talks with the alleged
criminal to see if he or she understands the difference between right and wrong. Then the
psychiatrist forms an opinion about whether or not the person knew it was wrong to
commit the crime. The possibility of unconscious impulses is not taken into account (1).

Three methods for measuring legal insanity, in the United States, have followed
England’s M’Naghten rule. The Durham rule of 1954 attempted to broaden the U. S.
legal system’s understanding of legal insanity. Under the Durham rule, it was stated that a defendant is not criminally responsible if the activity was “a product of mental disease or defect” (1). In 1962, the American Law Institute proposed a set of guidelines for defining legal insanity. These guidelines provide 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 either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to confirm his conduct to the requirements of law” (5). The second test is known as the "product" test. For this test, a psychiatrist attempts to discover the unconscious, irresistible impulses of the accused criminal. The accused's ability to distinguish right from wrong is not considered. This test temporarily increased the use of insanity as a defense,
because committing crime could be considered the result of uncontrollable desires. The
irresistible impulse test is the third type of test. This test is a combination of the
M’Naghten rule and the "product" test. A psychiatrist examines whether or not the
accused criminal knows right from wrong, and whether or not he or she has any
uncontrollable desires to commit crime (1).

In the 1970’s, a plea known as “not guilty by reason of insanity” (NGRI) became
popular. In Lubin’s opinion, anyone could use this plea and many willful criminals were
acquitted on the grounds of mental illness (3). During the 1982 trial of John Hinckley,
who attempted to assassinate then President Ronald Reagan, the American Psychiatric
Association withdrew their support of the irresistible impulse test. APA officials decided
that “the line between an irresistible impulse and an impulse not resisted is probably no
sharper than that between twilight and dusk” (6). The Jones v. United States case of 1983
went all the way to the Supreme Court. The final ruling was that people acquitted on the
grounds of NGRI can be held indefinitely, with less proof of dangerousness than is
required for civilly committed individuals (5). A year later, in 1984, Congress passed the
Insanity Defense Reform Act. This act required defendants to prove beyond a doubt that
their severe mental disease or defect left them incapable of knowing their actions were
wrong (6). The NGRI defense is raised in less than one percent of felony cases, and is
successful (success is defined as acquittal) only about 25 percent of the time. These cases
are usually heard by a judge instead of a jury, and are largely unpopular because the
burden of proof still relies heavily on psychiatric testimony.

Today, 17 states allow a newly worded verdict of “guilty but mentally ill” (7). This
verdict indicates that defendants are responsible for their actions, and they are placed into
a mental hospital for rehabilitation. If their mental condition improves, defendants are
transferred to a prison to serve out the remainder of their sentence. This option has been
well received by the court system, and offers relief to victims’ families (6). What would
happen if the insanity defense was totally abolished? Currently, three states (Montana,
Idaho, and Utah) have abolished the plea. In these states, an alleged criminal must be
found fit to stand trial. The defendant’s lawyer may introduce evidence of a mental
disease or defect that may have triggered the criminal act, but insanity can not be used as
an independent defense to avoid the guilty verdict. If found competent to stand trial, the
proceedings are carried out in the usual manner (the judge and/or jury look at criminal
intent, and consider the factual evidence surrounding the crime; and the defendant would
be convicted, if proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt). However, there is some
evidence that alleged criminals who would have used the insanity defense are now just
found incompetent to stand trial, and are placed into a mental hospital (7). Another
downside to this option is that it gives very little closure to the victims’ families (6).

What causes maladaptive (insane) behavior? The Sarasons discuss six different
perspectives that the field of abnormal psychology currently accepts. In this paper, two
will be discussed; biological and behavioral. The biological perspective links abnormal
behavior to physical disturbances within the body (5). An example of this perspective
involves genetics. In 1969, there was a man called the "chromosome murderer." The
defense stated that the man was not responsible for murder because he carried an extra Y
sex chromosome. Females carry two X sex chromosomes, while men carry an X and Y.
This particular male carried one X and two Y sex chromosomes. Extra Y sex
chromosome carriers were later nicknamed "super males." Common traits of a "super
male" are facial acne, unusual tallness, mental dullness, and conviction of violent crimes.
The “chromosome murderer" was eventually convicted of murder (3). The behavioral
perspective says that behavior is learned through exposure to the environment (5). An
example of this would be childhood physical or sexual abuse. On the Ohio State campus
in 1978, a man named William kidnapped, robbed, and raped four college girls. Upon his
capture, it was discovered that he possessed ten different personalities. Eight of the
personalities were male and two were female. Billy was the dominant personality. During
a psychiatric evaluation, the doctor learned that William had been sexually abused as a
child. To escape the abuse he would go into a "psychological coma." In other words, he
slept through the abuse. He also claims to have “slept” through the crimes he committed.
At his trial, William was found NGRI because of his multiple personality (dissociative)
disorder (8).

Society seems to hold many misconceptions about the insanity defense. First of all,
people seem to believe that the defense is commonly used. As stated before, the defense is
only used less than one percent of the time. The public also seems to have grown weary
of criminals who “play the victim,” and claim to have suffered some hardship that made
them vulnerable to committing crime (7). A second myth is that legally insane criminals
are not punished because they are not held legally responsible for their actions. The truth
is that confinement in a mental institution is not much different from being sent to prison.
Neither institution is pleasant, and both places have people being held against their will.
A third misconception is that psychiatrists can precisely determine mental stability. In the
end, only the criminal knows what was really going on inside of his or her head during the
crime. The fourth myth concerns the false sense of security that society receives by
keeping mentally ill criminals in confinement. Mental hospitals are capable of reforming
the mentally ill, but confinement does not guarantee that the person will be cured. When
confinement is too long to fit the crime or too short to do any good, it becomes unjust
whether it is in a prison or a hospital (2).

The whole reason behind the insanity defense is to make society feel protected, but it
does not make the defense the perfect solution. Throughout history there have been many
ways of dealing with mentally ill people who commit crimes. There are several methods
for determining legal insanity; such as the M’Naghten rule, the "product" test, and the
irresistible impulse test. These methods serve only as guidelines, and are not considered
completely capable of uncovering what goes on in the minds of alleged criminals. The
field of abnormal psychology has presented us with six perspectives on the causes of
maladaptive (insane) behavior, two of which have been directly linked to individual cases.
Finally, there are many misconceptions and injustices surrounding the defense. I think it is
impossible to know exactly what someone else is really thinking or feeling, and that
committing a crime is wrong no matter what the perpetrator claims his or her mental state
was. I do believe the insanity defense should remain in action, because mentally ill felons
do require some special treatment as opposed to regular felons. It may cause a lot of
problems and controversy, but at the same time it allows mentally ill individuals the option
of a fair trial. If a defendant is found NGRI or “guilty but mentally ill,” I think that he or
she should be placed in a mental hospital instead of being released without treatment. If
the defendant recovers, then I think he or she should serve out the rest of his or her
sentence in a prison. If these hospital environments are improperly operated and/or lack
funding, they will not be able to perform their duty. In that sense, the insanity defense is
unreliable. That seems to be one of the main concerns of this whole issue. I think the
insanity defense can be a useful part of our legal system, if it is in complete working order
and performs its responsibilities as part of the correctional system. Otherwise it is useless
to have and all it provides is a false sense of security.


1. Coleman, L. (1984). The Reign Of Error. Boston: Beacon Press.

2. Kirwin, B. R. (1997). The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

3. Lubin, M. (1982). Good Guys, Bad Guys. New York: McGraw-Hill Book

4. Ross, J. W., & Winslade, W. J. (1983). The Insanity Plea. New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons.

5. Sarason, B. R., & I. G. (1999). Abnormal Psychology, The Problem Of
Maladaptive Behavior. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

6. Vatz, R. E., & Weinberg, L. S. (1998, May). The Insanity Defense: Unconscious Impact On Victims Of Violence. [Online]. Retrieved March 24, 2001, from EBSCO Host database (MasterFILE Elite) on the World Wide Web:

7. Witkin, G. (1998, January 12). What Does It Take To Be Crazy? [Online].
Retrieved March 24, 2001, from EBSCO Host database (MasterFILE Elite) on the World Wide Web:

8. Woychuk, D. (1996). Attorney For the Damned, A Lawyers Life With the
Criminally Insane. New York: The Free Press.

Source used for presentation

1. Higgins, M. (1997, December). Crazy Talk. [Online]. Retrieved March 24, 2001,
from EBSCO Host database (MasterFILE Elite) on the World Wide Web:

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