Former U.S president Ronald Reagan was shot by a man named John Hinckley in the year 1981. The president along with many of his entourage survived the shooting despite the heavy infliction of internal and external injuries. The Hinckley case is a classic example of the 'not guilty by reason of insanity' case (NGRI). The criminal justice system under which all men and women are tried holds a concept called mens rea, a Latin phrase that means "state of mind". According to this concept, Hinckley committed his crime oblivious of the wrongfulness of his action. A mentally challenged person, including one with mental retardation, who cannot distinguish between right and wrong is protected and exempted by the court of law from being unfairly punished for his/her crime. (1)
What is "insanity" and why is this subject of much controversy? Although I do not have a clear definition of insanity, most socially recognized authorities such as psychiatrists, medical doctors, and lawyers agree that it is a brain disease. However, in assuming it is a brain disease, should we link insanity with other brain diseases like strokes and Parkinsonism? Unlike the latter two, whose causes can be medically accounted for through a behavioral deficit such as paralysis, and weakness, how can one explain the behavior of crimes done by people like Hinckley? (2)
Much of my skepticism over the insanity defense is how this act of crime has been shifted from a medical condition to coming under legal governance. The word "insane" is now a legal term. A nuerological illness described by doctors and psychiatrists to a jury may explain a person's reason and behavior. It however seldom excuses it. The most widely known rule in...
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... a reversible state. When the defendant no longer tests positive in legal tests, an insane person miraculously becomes sane. Unfortunately, the same law does not account or recognize the physical, emotional or psychological states that may or may not be reversible.
1)All About the Insanity Defense, Mark Godo
2) Does Insanity "Cause" crime? : Thomas Szasz, M.D., The Myth of Mental Illness (1960)
4)The Yates case: Commentary for United Press International; Susan Crump is a former prosecutor for Houston
5) Donald E. Watson, MD taught and did research in nueropsychology, teaches at UC Irvine Medical School.
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