The Insanity Plea

The concept of defense by insanity has been in existence since ancient Greek and Roman times, although it did not emerge in American history until the mid 1800’s. In 1638, in colonial America, a delusional Dorothy Talbye was hanged for murdering her daughter. At that time, Massachusetts common law made no distinction between mental illness (insanity) and criminal behavior. In America the use of the insanity defense did not first appear until 1859 in a case in Washington D.C. Then, in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the common law rule that those who have been found to be insane can not be executed (Ford v. Wainwright 477 U.S. 399).

There have been many developments, and changes in the defense by insanity, and how the term “insanity” is defined in a legal sense. Some opponents of the insanity plea believe that psychiatry itself has become a way to justify mercy by making persons “exceptional” in some way, and therefore not deserving of harsh punishment we as society would deem just and fair consequences for the crime committed.
Mental illness itself has not always been recognized as a legitimate disorder and there has often been lacking in understanding it and/or misdiagnosed. What is the legal definition of insanity? If a person is not convicted due to mental insanity, then what becomes of them after court? What are the pros and cons to having the ability to plea insanity? Is there truly such a thing as temporary insanity? What does the Bible say, if anything, about this issue? These are all questions I will explore and answer further throughout this paper.

The most influential and most quoted tests of legal insanity are the M’Naughten Rules. In 1843, Daniel M’Naughten shot and killed Edward Drummond, the secretary to the Prime Minister of England. M’Naughten was delusional and under the impression that he was being persecuted by a number of people in England and Scotland. M’Naughten had intended to kill the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, and thought that is exactly who he had killed. The Queen and The House of Lords asked the judges in the M’Naughten trial to explain the tests by which a person could be properly judged criminally insane. The M’Naughten Rules state: The defendant is insane if they have a diseased mind that caused a defect of reason, such that when they acted, they either did not know the act was wrong or didn’t understand the nature and quality of their actions.

Critics of the M’Naughten have argued that this emphasis on reason is based on the assumption that cognition is the only or the most important mental capacity with relevance to responsibility. This assumption implies that the mind can be separated into compartments and that cognition is the most important determining factor of behavior. For example, it is implied that cognition, emotion, and volition could be compartmentalized, when in fact that is not the case. Even if it were possible to compartmentalize mental functions, this criticism of the M’Naughten test emphasizes another important point, which states: a person’s mood may color how he perceives his actions, and as a result, what he believes about them. Critics also point out the fact that a person may very well understand their actions but for some reason are unable to control them. M’Naughten ignores the aspect of self-control. Psychiatrists agree that it is possible to understand that one’s behavior is wrong, but still be unable to stop themselves from committing the act.

The 1950’s had seen a growing dissatisfaction with the M’Naughten test. Viewed as rigid and antiquated, it was criticized in both legal and psychiatric circles. Critics were now calling for the introduction of medical evidence of mental illness into the insanity defense equation. Prior to the Durham Rule, some states had modified the M’Naughten test with an “irresistible impulse” provision, which basically absolves a defendant who can distinguish right and wrong but is nonetheless unable to stop himself from committing an act that he knows to be wrong. (This test is also known as “the policeman at the elbow” test, in other words, would the defendant have committed the crime if there were a policeman standing at his elbow?)

The Durham Rule was first established in the United States District of Columbia in 1954. In the case of Durham v. United States, Judge David Bazelon ruled that “an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of a mental disease or defect. The judge had instructed the jury as such: He instructed that if the jury believed beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not suffering from a diseased or defective mental condition at the time he committed the criminal act charged, the jury may find him guilty. He then stated that if the jury believed that the defendant was suffering from a diseased or defective mental condition when he committed the act, but believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the act was not the product of such mental abnormality, they may find the defendant guilty. Unless the jury believed beyond a reasonable doubt that either the defendant was not suffering from a diseased or defective mental condition, or that the act was not the product of such abnormality, the jury must find the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity.

The Durham Rule proved vague and difficult to apply, and many were concerned that the broad definition would exonerate many more defendants than previous. There was too much confusion over whether “mental disease and defect” should be interpreted as only psychosis or to also include a larger variety of minor disorders as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It was a concern that defendants would begin to use alcoholism or antisocial disorders as excuses for their crimes. It became evident that it was difficult to prove whether the question of a defendant’s actions was a product of their disease was a factual question for the jury, or for expert psychiatric witnesses. Many skeptics felt that it gave psychiatrists and psychologists too much influence in the courtroom.

In 1962, The American Law Institute (A.L.I.) set forth a model Insanity Defense Statute. The A.L.I. standard was intended to allow for the introduction of medical and psychiatric evidence as well as soften the M’Naughten standard. In essence, the A.L.I. standard consolidates the principles of the M’Naughten “right and wrong” rule and the “irresistible impulse” test. As of 1998, States were split between 2 standards: 22 states used some type of A.L.I. rule, while 26 used a version of the M’Naughten.

During the 60’s and 70’s many state courts issued rulings showing a growing concern to protect the civil rights of the mentally ill. At this time many courts eliminated laws providing for automatic confinement of defendants who had been acquitted by reason of insanity. It also struck down an indefinite sentence of confinement. If the evaluations did not find justification for continued confinement, the defendants would be released.

After the acquittal of John Hinckley Jr. who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Regan, U.S. Congress responded to the public outrage to the verdict by introducing 26 pieces of legislation designed to abolish and/or modify the insanity defense. During the time of the Hinckley trial, all but one federal circuit had adopted the A.L.I. “substantial capacity” test, and all the new proposals were devoted to creating a stricter federal standard with the intent to avoid acquittals like Hinckley’s in the future. During the 1980’s through to the 1990’s courts shifted burden and the standard of proof in such a way that made it more difficult to sustain an insanity plea. There are three states that abolished the defense all together: Utah, Montana, and Idaho.

The culmination of all of the previous sanity tests, rules, and all standards by which we measure if a defendant is mentally ill and therefore not responsible for their actions, came to a head with the GBMI or Guilty but Mentally Ill verdict. A defendant who receives this verdict is still found legally guilty of the crime they are being tried for, but because they are in fact mentally ill, they have the right to receive mental health treatment while institutionalized. If symptoms desist, however, at that point they must serve the remainder of their sentence in a regular correctional facility. In 2000, there were at least 20 states that have adopted GBMI provisions.

So, what becomes of the criminally insane? What happens to a defendant after a judge or jury returns a verdict of insanity does somewhat depend on the crime committed, and on the state in which the trial takes place. In most cases, those found “not guilty” by reason of insanity are institutionalized in a hospital for severely mentally ill people who have committed crimes. After a period of time, the defendant may request a hearing to determine if he or she is no longer a danger to others or to themselves, or no longer mentally ill, which would make them eligible to be released.

Max was a white man in his forties who was brought to a veteran’s hospital after he was arrested and convicted in South Carolina for check forgery. In the past he had been hospitalized in various psychiatric units for treatment of his mental disorders, and both his wife and VA officials argued that he was not responsible for his actions. For this reason, an agreement had been reached whereby he would receive psychiatric treatment rather than a prison sentence.

Physical examinations on admission revealed a small man, alert and orientated, with no signs of psychosis or any other physical or mental disorder. A test for syphilis was positive, but lumbar puncture showed no signs of neurological involvement. Engaging and clearly intelligent, Max spoke proudly of his birth in Vienna, his many achievements in sports, and his scholarly work as a student at the University of Heidelberg. He said that at Heidelberg, Kant and Schopenhauer were his special objects of study, and he also mentioned his deep interest in Shakespeare. He spoke of his skill at fencing, remarking that he was well-known, even feared in Heidelberg and Vienna for his deadly skill with the sword. He denied all the criminal offenses that had brought him to the hospital.

His medical records showed that he had been admitted to psychiatric hospitals on six previous occasions. During none of these admissions had a symptom of orthodox psychiatric disorder been noted. On his last admission he had initially been friendly and cooperative with the hospital staff, but soon became disruptive in rather petty ways, such as encouraging fights between mildly psychotic patients.

Several months before that admission he had been admitted to a veterans hospital in Maryland; he had complained of having blackout spells where he would loose his temper and unknowingly attack people. These spells were especially unfortunate for his victims, he claimed, because he had at one time been the featherweight boxing champion of England. He described his seizures lasting up to ten hours, during which he would convulse so violently as to rattle the windows and shake the slats off his bed.

Max had escaped prosecution for many misdeeds thanks to the help of his wife, in spite the fact that since marrying her, he had also undertaken two different bigamous marriages, all this in addition to another previous legal marriage which had ended in divorce. His present wife was the proprietress of a brothel, but even she appeared embarrassed by the behavior of her husband, who apparently intruded frequently upon the brothel’s guests, insisting on reminiscing nostalgically about his sports achievements, often parading and roaring at the closed doors behind which the clients were conducting their business.

On the occasion of his present hospital admission, on the ward, Max was very cooperative for a while, but soon became restless and hostile. On one occasion he kicked out an iron grill and escaped from the hospital, taking two psychotic patients with him. He committed petty thefts and started fights on the ward, and on one occasion when he was granted leave from the hospital, he escaped from his attendant through a tiny bathroom window and made his way to the nearest bar. He would ask for a loaf of bread in the presence of his psychiatrist. He would then break off a large chunk and place it in his mouth, chew, and remove, then model it into a large crucifix, complete with pedestal, rosettes and a garland of intertwining leaves. The bread would harden quickly and he began painting these crucifixes and presenting them to staff.

Despite all his seemingly odd behavior Max was described as an exceptionally intelligent man. It was believed by those who observed him that Max would easily have been able to earn an M.D. or a Ph.D. at most American Universities. In the weeks following his admission, Max began to get in touch with local members of the community who were interested in welfare work and in helping disabled veterans. Soon these well intentioned people would begin to bring pressure on the hospital to allow Max to rehabilitate himself. On several occasions he was given parole, but each time, sometimes after only a few hours, he would become involved in a fight and be brought back to the hospital by police. He would plea his case claiming he had amnesia, he was schizophrenic, claiming he could communicate with his dead ancestors, and one occasion convinced authorities he was deluded, by claiming he was being chased by baboons. (Excerpt from The Rules of Insanity By: Carl Elliot) What does this man deserve, the psychiatric ward or jail? Who makes that decision? It’s not always a clear cut line.

What are the pros and cons of the insanity defense? The pros, and the main reason this defense was ever originally created was the concern by some in the validity and ethics behind punishing a person of a criminal act, if the person committing the act suffers a debilitating mental condition that hinders the person from the ability to execute proper judgment and discernment about the morality of their actions. But with that noble concern is the flip side of the coin. The con to this defense is the repeated abuse of this defense by people who are not mentally ill, but looking for pity and/or a way to escape full consequences of their criminal actions. The insanity defense continues to be a controversy, because those who are acquitted are still usually committed to a hospital for an indeterminate period, which some view as a way to escape their sentence.

Is there such a thing as temporary insanity? Yes, there is, however, it is under just as much scrutiny as the regular insanity defense. Lots of sane people are sane merely because they have never had an extremely uncomfortable circumstance that pushed them beyond their capability to cope. Causes for someone to temporarily loose sight of normal rationale could be several different things. Some examples could be, catching a spouse in the act of cheating, the effect of a strong medication, or brainwashing. Such happenings in someone’s life could cause a temporary loss of reasoning ability. The person who committed the crime could have entered a “dissociative state” briefly and committed an act that, under more normal circumstances, they most likely would not have committed. To serve the purpose of a defense in law, the disorder must show to have caused an absolute alienation of reason, “ut continua mentis alienation”, “omni intellectu careat”- such a disease that would deprive the defendant of the knowledge of the true aspect and position of things about him, in other words, it hinders the defendant from properly distinguishing between friend or foe.

So, what does the Bible have to say about insanity? The Bible does not specifically say whether or not mentally ill people go to heaven. But, there is some biblical evidence that anyone who is not able to make a decision for salvation is covered by Christ’s death. It would be similar to how many commonly believe that children are automatically taken to heaven when they die until they reach the point where they are able to make a decision for or against Christ. When King David suffered the loss of a child, he comforted himself with the thought, “Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23) King David was fully aware that one day he would see his child again in heaven. It is from this example that we can see that young children and babies are, by God’s grace, covered for salvation by Christ’s death.

I feel we can make a cross reference from this assumption with children, that another group of people who lack the same accountability standards as the rest of us, mentally ill and mentally retarded people are covered by the same salvation principle. It is true that the word of God does not specifically state this. However, this would seem consistent with the character of Christ, as we as Christians are aware of His love, grace, and mercy. Any person who is mentally challenged to the degree that he could not be aware of his sinful state and believe in Christ for himself to receive salvation, would be in the same category as a child and therefore it is not unreasonable to assume that this individual is saved by the grace and mercy of the same God who saves babies and small children.

To conclude, I have learned more than I ever thought imaginable about the insanity defense. This has really been a fascinating and incredible journey of research. The insanity defense came into play when the fall of man came into play. We all sin and fall short of the Glory of God. With sin come things that God never intended, like disease of the mind. I have seen more and more that the controversy over the insanity plea will never be completely resolved because it is such a gray area to be in. Only God can ever truly look into the heart of man and see his true heart and mind and intentions. As man with limits to what we can discern about another’s actions or mental capability, we do the best we can to judge those who should face judgment and give help to those who are mentally sick. But until the end of this life, there will always be this issue.