The insanity defense drives some members of the public insane. In fact, one of these members of the public, claiming temporary insanity, might run out and shoot a murderer who used this defense. This example points out the absurdity of the insanity defense. The problem is that many murderers are, at a minimum, temporarily insane when they kill.
Even though a small percentage of criminals are found not guilty by reason of insanity, this controversial defense needs more scrutiny. Let’s examine the rules of law that apply to this defense.
There are five tests of criminal responsibility involving insanity: (1) M’Naghten Rule in 1843, which states that the accused must prove that he didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t know it was wrong, (2) the irresistible impulse in 1897, which means that the charged could not control his conduct, (3) the Durham Rule in 1954, which is mental illness caused the criminal act, (4) the Model Penal Code in 1972, declares the he lacked the substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to control it, and (5) the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which currently requires showing the lack of capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct.
The evolution of the insanity defense has followed the public’s concern that a murderer will get back out on the street because a high-paid psychiatrist told the jury that he was insane. Prior to 1843, if you proved that when you committed a murder, you did not know what you were doing; you could be released. When Daniel M’Naghten killed Edward Drummond, M’Naghten claimed he believed that Drummond was the Prime Minister of Great Britian, so he got off. The public was incensed. Quite frankly, M’Naghten intentionally killed a man. It shouldn’t matter whether he mistook Mr. Drummond for the Prime Minister.
The M’Naghten Rule soon came into existence, which is used by several of the states even today. In short, the rule is that if at the time of the act you are laboring under a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, so as to not know the nature and quality of the act you are doing, or if you do not know the difference between right and wrong, then you could use the defense of insanity.
As we learned more about mental disorders, some professionals have argued that some people may be able to distinguish right from wrong and still be insane. Some states allowed defendants to argue that even though they knew that what they were doing was wrong, they were unable to control an urge to commit the crime, which was termed the irresistible impulse rule. This test is problematic because murderers could argue this quite frequently. It opens up a big exit door for the defense.
Then the Durham Rule came along. Monte Durham had a long history of both criminal activity and mental illness. The court held that Durham was not guilty because his criminal acts were the product of a mental disease or defect. This rule provided that insanity was caused by many factors, not all of which need to be present in each criminal case. This rule was very controversial since it did little to define mental disease or defect.
All the federal courts and many state courts adopted Model Penal Codes by 1982. These codes stated that if at the time of the conduct as a result of mental disease or defect, the accused is not responsible if he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. In effect, this broadened the M’Naghten and Irresistible Impulse rules, by focusing on the individual’s substantial capacity. This gets away from the black and white of being able to distinguish right from wrong.
When John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan, his defense team showed that Hinckley was insane, so he was acquitted. This created a public backlash, leading to several states abolishing the insanity defense and twelve states changing the law to provide a verdict of “guilty but mentally ill” leading to a prison sentence with psychiatric treatment.
The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 modified the federal rules regarding the insanity defense, shifting the burden of proof from the prosecutor to the defendant. The test for insanity was a lack of capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct. This gives a professional psychiatrist plenty of leeway to testify that a murderer was insane. A person found not guilty by reason of insanity would be committed to a mental hospital until that person would no longer be dangerous to society.
Today, the insanity defense is just too confusing for jurors and they are at the mercy of the psychiatrists who are paid well for their opinions. The best approach is to allow the case to be prosecuted without the insanity defense. Then, the court would allow evidence of mental defect or insanity in the sentencing portion of the trial. The jurors could even require prison with psychiatric assistance during the prisoner’s sentence. If the prisoner is really bad and needs full time psychiatric care, then that could be arranged. When the prisoner is better, he would be returned to prison. There are many possible options under sentencing to deal with insanity, but giving a killer a free pass is not one of them.
What about a murderer who does not have the capacity to defend himself in court? A friend of the court could be appointed to represent that individual’s interest, separate and apart from his attorney. It would be similar to a civil court appointing a representative for somebody who is being declared incompetent.
What about the element of intent in murder? In order for an accused to be charged with murder, there typically has to be malice aforethought. This requires a deliberate, premeditated, and willful killing of another human being. Many states determine if the accused knew his behavior had a strong chance of causing death or was reckless in conduct that caused death.
If the accused had a mental defect, such as being a paranoid schizophrenic, then the facts of the case have to be examined. If the individual was on medications that made them normal, but they stopped taking the medications, then this provides evidence that the accused was criminally negligent and when he stopped taking the medications, he showed indifference to life and recklessly engaged in conduct that caused death.
Each crime must be examined on a case-by-case method to determine whether murder or manslaughter is involved. Insanity should only be examined as a mitigating factor in the murder trial. In some cases, it may lead to a manslaughter indictment. In most cases, it would lead to mitigation in the sentencing phase of the trial. But the bottom line is that insanity should not be a defense that erases the crime.