Questions about Insanity Defenses

I think there could be a GQ answer for this question but won’t be surprised to see it moved to GD.

How did pleading insanity (or the equivalent) as a defense come to be shorthand for getting off easy in the eyes of the public? Was there ever a point in time in which an insanity defense was viewed as a more legitimate plea? Or was there some period of abuse (not sure how) of insanity pleas?

Finally, why do so many misperceptions about insanity defenses still exist? People will refer to pleading insanity as an attempt to try and avoid punishment, but under the legal systems I am familiar with, you serve at least the same sentence, just in a mental institution instead of a prison.

There were objections to the insanity defense almost as soon at it was developed. At that time (it began to be regularized in the 1840s), the penalty for murder was almost always death, so an insanity defense meant the criminal would still live. Many thought that, being guilty, the state should take his life.

It’s not abuse per se, but the fact that the victim’s family felt that the criminal was not getting the punishment he deserved nor did they get justice.

As for misperceptions, they always have a way of hanging on. That’s especially true in a case of insanity, because it’s hard to define and can be faked.

The misperception probably came from the “temporary insanity” pleas that we started to see more prominent in the news in the 60’s and since. An otherwise well-functioning member of society commits a crime - then claims an irresistable urge or sme other failing caused them to do the crime. They are perfectly fine now, and with a little outpatient counselling they can put their horrible murder behind them and get on with life. This led to such cases as the “Twinkie defence” - eating too much junk food addled my brain chemistry causing me to lose control and shoot someone because they were named after a nutrious food.

I would think that most of the public understand that someone who has lost touch with reality and thinks God is telling them what to do, belongs in a looney bin not a jail. However, when what look like normal rational people try to get hemselves sent for a short stretch to the looney bin to avoid a life or more in jail, people see it as an attempt to cheat the system. they also see that people with clever lawyers may succeed at this - or else our society will mistake a good lawyer’s argument for weasel behaviour, for some reason.

Another issue is that as insane asylums were converted to outpatient facilities, and only the really serious cases remained behind bars - it was seen that an insanity verdict would possibly mean only a few years before the local shrinks (who also know nothing) decided the perp was sane now and unlikely to offend - and turned him loose. If you are faking insanity, it should be easy to prove you are “cured”.

Take Hinkley, the guy who shot Reagan - how irrational was this guy? He followed Reagan all over the country, ad managed to figure out Jodie Foster’s mailing address. At a time when aircraft hijacking was a concern, he was rational enough to transport a handgun all over the USA; presumably, he knew enough to put it in his luggage rather than to carry it on and try to get through security. OK, shooting the prez to impress a girl who hasn’t a clue you exist - that’s pretty evidently whacko; but if you are rational enough to know you cannot carry a weapon onto an aircraft, and take steps to avoid it, can you really expect people to believe you were incapable of realizing that shooting a president is a “bad thing”? Phrasing such arguments in the right way is what earns a lawyer big bucks.

Evidently part of the problem is public misperception of what actually happened.

For the record, the"Twinkie Defense" did not blame junk food. The defense was arguing insanity, and as one small part of establishing that the defendant had undergone drastic personality changes (i.e. went at least temporarily crazy) noted that the defendant, known to be a health food advocate, had in the days before the crime, started eating twinkies and other junk food.

In other words, the twinkies were a symptom of insanity, NOT a cause.

Thanks; I never really looked into the details of the case.

However, this also plays to the OP’s question - “public perception”. Yes, most cases where the public rolls their eyes, especially insanity defences, are more detailed and more complex than the media and Fox News make them out to be.

In the 1960s several jurisdictions began using the Durham test for insanity:

This lenient standard basically stated that a person was not guilty by reason of insanity if we would not have otherwise committed the crime but for his mental disease. As you can imagine, pretty much every crime would fit that bill in some way. I don’t think any state still uses this standard.

Also, in almost all jurisdictions, you don’t do the same sentence in a mental hospital. You go to a mental hospital until you are “cured.” So the public perception is that you fake being crazy, get sent to a mental hospital, then are “cured and released” a year later.

The reality is that the modern tests for insanity (see the above link about the M’Naughten rule and the irresistible impulse rule) are so strict that a person can be very very mentally ill, yet still legally responsible for his actions.

The perception may have been partially true at one time, but no longer.

Wasn’t this the defense used by the guy who killed Harvey Milk?

I think a big part of the misconception comes from terminology: “not guilty by reason of insanity” contains a cognitive disconnect. How can someone who admits to committing a crime be “not guilty”?

A plea of “guilty by reason of insanity” would make much more sense. That would say “yes, I did it, but I wasn’t responsible for my actions at the time.”

  1. I don’t know about the public, but within the legal profession, that was not the case. In fact, pleading not guilty by reason of insanity meant that you got sent to a mental hospital…Indefinatly. When you got out of there was anyones guess. Indeed it was often said that “only a madman would plead insanity”. It was better to plead guilty and hope for mercy (which would often come).

  2. Also, Insanity is just one type of defence which relates to a persons mental state. We all know that people who are not in the ordinary course insane can and do suffer from mental defects (transitory and more permanent). Most serious crimes require a mental element, the question in most Trials where the accused’s mental state is raised is whether not the persons mental state vitiated the crime (or comes under some statutory exception). I suppose the general public confused them with insanity.

Yeah, I recall hearing an interview with a lawyer some years ago that made that point; the legal definition of insanity for the purposes of criminal is extremely narrow. You pretty much have to be totally detached from reality to qualify; he used the example of someone who killed his parents because he thought they were rats. He also mentioned that most of what get called “insanity pleas” in the press are nothing of the sort; they are attempts at jury nullification. Not attempts to meet the legal definition of insanity, but to convince the jury that the person is insane by their definition of the term, not the legal one and deserves mercy.

There’s a difference between a putatively criminal act and a crime. A crime is defined explicitly in law and includes intent at minimum. A misdemeanor in Pennsylvania may be legal in West Virginia and a llow-level felony in Maryland.

“Guilty” is a concept at criminal law. “Culpable” might be the equivalent at civil law – It’s fairely easy to set up a scenario where you commit a criminal act while in a state of diminished responsibility – say, while mentally imbalanced by a high fever, an unforeseen interaction of prescribed medications, etc., where you did not haqve intent to commit that crime but can nonetheless be held liable in a civil lawsuit.

There are jurisdictions that allow a “Guilty But Mentally Ill” plea and/or finding in order to address this issue.

Cecil has an excellent column on the subject.

I was totally aghast when, in the middle of the whole Sybil multiple personality bruhaha, serial homophobe and rapist Billy Milligan totally escaped prison by claiming to have MPD, and a lesbian personality who committed the rapes. That case still riles me up.

However, after reading Jack Hinkley’s book Breaking Points, about his son John’s delusions about Jodie Foster and his shooting of the President, I will admit there are cases when the insanity defense is justified.

And I will add that the whole “I did it when I was insane, but I’m much better now” is a denfense that rarey works.