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Historical Overview of the Insanity Defense

It is an accepted fact in the law profession that one of the defenses for capital crimes is the proposition that the defendant should not be held responsible for his deeds by reason of their existing mental state during the consummation of the crime. The insanity defense has been in practice in the Anglo-American jurisprudence as early as the 15th century. This paper aims to present the history of the insanity defense since its inception up to its current form and the underlying reasons. Reliable sources points to the fact that in 1581, a legal treatise in England was

established and distinguished the difference between those who understood the evil of his act and those who cannot As a result of this treatise, by 18th century, the British court put forward the so called “wild beast test” (Simon 18). The wild beast test states that “If a defendant was so bereft of sanity that he understood the ramifications of his behavior “no more than in an infant, a brute, or a wild beast,” he would not be held responsible for his crimes” (Simon 17). In this test of insanity, the defendant was equated to a wild animal which is devoid of conscience and understanding of the evilness of his act.

If the assailant’s state of mind was that of a wild beast during the onslaught of the criminal act, then he can be pronounced not guilty for reason of insanity in today’s legal parlance. The “Right/Wrong “ M’Naughten Test The codification of the guidelines for establishing insanity defense was done in 1843 by the British court in the case of Daniel M’Naughten. According to Simon (1999), M’Naughten is a Scottish woodcutter who killed the secretary of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in his failed attempt to murder the Prime Minister. M’Naughten firmly believes

that the Prime Minister is the reason for the myriad of personal and financial woes he and his family is experiencing and has to kill him with the hope that murdering the Prime Minister will end his woes. During the trial, a total of nine witnesses testified to the fact 2 that M’Naughten is insane and cannot distinguish the right from wrong. Queen Victoria was not pleased with the verdict and instructed that a panel of judges review the verdict. The judges reversed the jury verdict after the review and emphasized that a defendant cannot be held for the crime if he could not tell that his actions were wrong during the

consummation of the act. This became the basis of the law related to insanity in England and the American courts embraced the M’Naughten rule with no modification for more than 100 years until the middle of 20th century. In 1998, Simon reported that 25 states in the US plus the District of Columbia in Canada used the M’Naughten rule to test the legality of insanity defense. The Irresistible Impulse Provision According to Simon (1999), The US courts through the many cases invoking insanity defense found a weakness of the M’Naughten rule and that is the lack of irresistible impulse provision.

The provision according to psychiatrists call for the presence of irresistible impulse to do the crime in addition to the absence of understanding the right from wrong. Some states and not all modified the M’Naughten rule with the insertion of irresistible impulse provision. The Durham “mental defect” rule Fersch (2005) reported that in 1950s, it was criticized that the M’Naughten rule and the irresistible impulse rule as too rigid and antiquated. The legal circle decided to replace the existing insanity defense basis with the Durham mental defect rule. In Durham v. United

States case in 1954, it was ruled that if the crime is a product of the mental defect of an individual as determined by an expert opinion of a psychiatrist, then, the act should not be considered as criminal. In this test, the court replaced the moral consideration with more neutral scientific consideration as a result of psychiatric and psychological researches 3 during those times. The American Law Institute (ALI) standard The book of Fersch (2005) reported that most of the US states proved the Durham rule vague and difficult to apply and many were concerned that the broad definition would

exempt the alcoholics who can do the crime at the height of their drunkenness which can be considered as mental disease or disorder. The Durham rule also made the psychiatrists too powerful in court and can overpower the jury and judges. In 1972, a panel of federal judges overturned the Durham test in favor of the Model Penal Code Test or the ALI standard. Twenty-two states explicitly rejected the Durham test, and in 1972, a panel of federal judges overturned the ruling in favor of the Model Penal Code test of the American Law Institute. The standard consolidates the M’Naughten right and wrong rule and the

irresistible impulse test and allow the medical and psychiatric evidence. The ALI standard provides that a defendant will not be responsible for his crime if at the time of the consummation of the act he lacks the substantial capacity to understand the repercussion of his crime or to conform his conduct according to the rule of law. As of 1998, 22 states used the ALI standard while 26 used the M’Naughten rule with or without the irresistible impulse provision. The Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 The book of Simon and Aaronson (1988) reported that John W.

Hinckley, Jr. shot President Reagan and three others as the president is walking to his limousine after an appearance in a Washington, DC hotel. Hinckley want to impress actress Judy Foster of his infatuation and dedicate the act to her as a proof of his undying love. Many eyewitnesses saw the incident and was caught in television by millions. After a seven week trial which included three days of jury deliberations, Hinckley was acquitted of all 13 crimes he was 4 charged of. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. As a result of the verdict, there was

a public clamor to abolish or revise the current insanity defense as they claim that there are loopholes . The Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 was enacted. The act followed the M’Naughten rule with irresistible impulse provision. Likewise, the burden of proof of being insane was transferred to the defense from the previous burden of the prosecution. More than 30 states patterned their insanity defense statutes to the Reform Act of 1984. Montana, Utah and Idaho abolished the insanity defense totally. Guilty but Mentally Ill (GBMI) As part of the post- Hinckley reform era, the GBMI verdict was adopted by 20 states in

2000. According to medical doctors Melville and Naimark (2002), the GBMI verdict still held responsible an insane to his crime based on the provisions of M’Naughten rule and suffer the prison consequences but uphold the human rights of the prisoner to seek medical services in relation to his mental sickness. The doctors claimed that “The stated purpose of this verdict is to reduce the number of successful insanity defenses by offering an intermediate verdict between guilty and NGRI [or not guilty for reason of insanity]” (553, 2nd par. ). It is very clear that the GBMI will not spare those found guilty for reason of

insanity and bring needed justice to the aggrieved party as being clamored publicly. Summary and Conclusion It was proven from the sources consulted that the insanity defense is a never ending conflict between two important American values, justice for criminals and human compassion for mentally ill. The historical overview of the insanity defense which started from the brute M’Naughten rule in the 18th century with numerous modifications in the middle era and ended with only slight modifications after three centuries in “Guilty but Mentally Ill” verdict signify the never ending effort of our jury system as representatives of

the sovereign individuals to balance the two American values and bring justice to all. 5 References Fersch, E. L. (2005). Thinking about the Insanity Defense. Manhattan. iUniverse Melville, J. D. and Naimark, D. (2002). Punishing the Insane: The Verdict of Guilty but Mentally Ill. Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry Law. 30:553-5. Simon, R. J. and Aaronson, David E. (1988). The Insanity Defense: A Critical Assessment of Law and Policy in the Post-Hinckley Era. New York. Praeger Publishers. Simon, R. T. (1999). The Jury & the Defense of Insanity. New Jersey. Transaction Publishers.

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