All about the insanity defense

The Insanity Defense

On February 27, 1859, Congressman Daniel Sickles had seen a man crawling up the side of his house and into his wife's bedroom. Daniel was aware that his wife had been cheating on him with this man for several weeks. Out of rage, Daniel grabbed two handguns from his bedroom and began screaming, "You must die!" when he finally pulled the trigger and shot the man in the leg and thigh. Now helpless and lying on the floor, the man begged Daniel not to kill him but Daniel, still infuriated, shot him straight in the chest. In court, Daniel's attorney stated that he could not be held responsible for killing the man because he was driven insane by the knowledge of his wife cheating on him (truTV). This was one of the earliest known cases of someone using the excuse that they were mentally unstable at the time of the offence. The insanity defense should continue to be implemented, but much more controlled so that the system is not abused and justice can be properly served.

The insanity defense refers to a plea that defendants are not guilty because they lacked the mental capacity to realize that they committed a crime or to appreciate why it was the wrong thing to do (Washington Post). It is used in only one percent of all felony cases and it results in acquittal in only 25% of those cases (Encyclopedia.com). Usually, hardly anyone is able to walk free when they're judged as insane (Washington Post). On average, someone who is "found not guilty by means of insanity and committed to a mental institution is confined for twice as long" as someone who doesn't use the insanity defense and just goes to prison (Encyclopedia.com). About 95% of everyone found not guilty by reason of insanity are kept in hospitals or mental institutions rather than being set on the streets. Despite what most think, the insanity defense is rarely used and isn't very successful (Encyclopedia.com).

The most common variation is cognitive insanity. Under the test for C.I defendants must have been so impaired by mental disease or defect that they were unaware of the nature and quality of their act (Encyclopedia.com). However, the insanity defense is not equivalent to incompetency, which is used when someone is found unable to stand trial and is held in a mental institution until they show signs of being able to participate in their trial (Encyclopedia.com). Volitional Insanity, also known as irresistible impulse, is another form of the insanity defense. Volitional Insanity is when someone is able to distinguish between right and wrong but was temporarily unable to control his or her actions. This is common in crimes of vengeance like when a child is brutally assaulted and their mother was to shoot the person who hurt her child. In court, she'd be able to argue that she knew it was the wrong thing to do, but she was so angry that she became mentally ill and was unable to exert self-control (Encyclopedia.com). Some states have another option: GMBI (guilty but mentally ill). The downside to this method is that there are quite a few negative effects that could result. With GMBI, the jurors have two chances to prove that someone is guilty, and only one to prove that they're innocent. GMBI also assumes that a prison will be able to provide the same level of treatment that a hospital can and sends a defendant there instead. In the situations where someone is sent to a hospital under GMBI, the two biggest negatives are that someone can be sent to prison after they receive their treatment and are 100% normal again and that they can be released from the hospital even if they're not yet mentally stable (Psychiatric Times).

The M'Naghten Rule states that everyone is assumed to be sane and that to establish a defense on a ground of insanity, at the time the crime was committed, the accused must've been suffering from some mental defect that didn't allow him or her to know the nature and quality of the act they were doing. The test to see if someone can be convicted of a crime is whether or not he or she knew the differences to be committed. The irresistible impulse test is a test to determine whether or not someone was able to choose between right and wrong and also if they were able to control their impulses. The Durham Rule states that the defendant is not responsible for committing his or her crime if it was due to a mental illness. Due to tests that were very easy to "fool," the Durham Rule was eventually abandoned in 1972 (enotes.com).

Some feel that the insanity defense is a legitimate defense and should continue to be implemented, while others feel that it serves no real purpose and should be abolished. To a certain extent, I can see why they feel that way, but the benefits of the insanity defense greatly outweigh the issues that they're concerned with. The biggest issue most people are concerned with is the fact that it's thought of to be an easy defense for those looking to receive less severe consequences (Washington Post). That is certainly not the case, however. Hardly anyone that tries to plead not guilty by way of the insanity actually wins that case, and those that do usually receive much longer time in prison or a psychiatric ward, which wouldn't be the best thing for someone to do if they're not really classified as insane. That also brings up another issue. What is classified as insane? Those against this defense feel that "it confuses psychiatric and legal concepts." (Encyclopedia.com) Another major issue is that the legal tests for passing as "insane" determine that an individual has lost his or her free will, which brings the next question: What is free will? Free will cannot actually be explained in medical terms, so how is a psychiatrist supposed to be able to determine that someone was mentally impaired and that it affected their ability to make decisions for themselves (Encyclopedia.com)? In reality however, although free will cannot be medically described, most people still an idea of what free will is, and it's also not the only thing taken into consideration when deciding someone's mental state. The last main argument is that many feel that the law is more concerned with consequences rather than personal well-being, and that if a person commits a crime, they should automatically be punished and jailed. The biggest issue is that is that in the cases where someone really is "insane," they never were able to receive the help they needed so that in the future, they don't commit any similar crimes. Lastly, both sides do have something they agree on and that is the fact that the word insane is a legal, and not a medical term. They feel that "it is too simplistic to describe a severely mentally ill person merely as insane, and the vast majority of people with a mental illness would be judged sane if current legal tests for insanity were applied." (Encyclopedia.com)

The insanity defense is a defense used in court when large crimes were committed, where a defendant is able to use the excuse that they are mentally insane or were at the time of the crime and be placed in a mental hospital or institution, rather than prison, so they can receive the help they need. Many dislike this defense because they feel that some people use the excuse to get a lighter sentencing when in fact, they either don't plead not guilty on grounds of insanity, as it's a very difficult procedure to go through or get double their sentencing in a mental institution. There are other forms of the insanity defense depending on the crime committed. The insanity defense should not be abolished for those that truly need help in a mental hospital.

Works Cited

  • Gado, Mark. "All about the insanity defense by Mark Gado - Crime Library on truTV.com." TruTV.com: Not Reality. Actuality. Web. 28 Jan. 2010. .
  • Hooper, John. "Does the Insanity Defense Have a Legitimate Role? - Psychiatric Times." Psychiatric Times, 1 Jan. 2002. Web. 20 Jan. 2010. .
  • "Insanity Defense." Encyclopedia.com. 2005. Web. 28 Jan. 2010. .
  • "Insanity Defense." ENotes. Web. 28 Jan. 2010. .
  • Martin, John. "The Insanity Defense: A Closer Look." Washingtonpost.com - nation, world, technology and Washington area news and headlines. 27 Feb. 1998. Web. 19 Jan. 2010. .

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