Crime Under the Insanity Defense

It is not uncommon to hear about the general populations’ distrust of the legal system; sometimes many even believe that a lot of criminals get away because of legal technicalities, such as the ability to plead insanity for a crime. The real prevalence of the insanity plea may be shocking to the general population, most likely because we only see high profile cases in which the plea may be appropriate but could also be from television or movies. In reality, there is a lot that goes along with being able to plead insanity when one must stand trial. The insanity plea is often thought to be used frequently by those who are up to stand trial for committed crimes, but how frequently is it really used as a tactic of defense and how do we establish the criteria that allows a defendant to plead this defense?

Pleading insanity is often a defense that the general population incorrectly assumes is a common tactic that lawyers use to acquit criminals from the crimes they have been charged with. This misconception is one that is dangerous for the general population to believe for the reason that they might come to distrust the legal system, or maybe even believe they themselves can get away with crimes easily. It is also important to discuss the difference between competency to stand trial and the insanity defense. Competency to stand trial refers to the defendant’s mental state at the time of trial. They must be able to understand the charges, basic knowledge on the roles of the court, and must be able to assist his lawyer in his or her defense (PBS). The insanity defense, instead, attempts to evaluate the defendant’s mental status at the time of the offense and determine if that mental state acquits them of being found guilty (Kumar,Math, Moirangthem). In one study conducted done over a 12-month period in Baltimore City’s superior trial court, researchers examined defendants deciding to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. In that time, they recorded a total number of 11,497 defendants, of which only 1.2% pled insanity. The resulting number of defendants that a judge found not guilty by reason of insanity is minuscule, a measly fourteen. While this may seem like a large number, in comparison to the amount of defendants in the 12-month period, it is not. Defendants successfully using the insanity plea only made up .001% of the total number of the defendants (Janofsky, Rapperport, Vandewalle). These articles demonstrate how seldom this defense is brought up and result in successful acquittals of criminal behavior.

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In 1991, a study used data from eight states and researchers found that less than one percent of county court cases brought up the insanity defense. If lawyers believed that the insanity defense would be successful, the amount of defendants using it as a defense tactic would be much higher. Of the defendants who pleaded the insanity defense, only 1 in 4 were successful, about 26% of defendants (Callahan, McGreevy, Robbins, Steadman). Of all the defendants who pled insanity, 90% of them were indeed diagnosed with mental illness, further eliminating the misconception that anyone can fake mental illness and be acquitted of a crime under the insanity defense.

In order to provide more evidence to dispel the myth that the insanity defense is not an easy way to get acquitted of a crime, I point to an article examining the use of the insanity defense. Estimates show that more than 16% of jail inmates have a mental illness. More than that, it is estimated that every year nearly 2 million incoming inmates are people who suffer from mental illness (Bloom, Schaefer). If the insanity defense offered criminals an easy way out due to a technicality than the numbers of perpetrators in jail wouldn’t be as high because more people would be claiming insanity and be found not guilty due to insanity at the time the crime was committed.

Establishing criteria for the insanity defense can be tricky, due to the fact that each state has a different approach to hearing an insanity defense, if it is even an option. Four states in the United States of America do not allow the insanity defense against charges that are criminal in nature and that are brought before the court. The states Montana, Idaho, Kansas, and Utah are among the group that will not hear insanity defenses, however, they do have “guilty but insane” verdicts. To understand how the court begins to judge insanity one must understand the basics of the “requirements for criminal sanction against an individual, mens rea and actus reus” (Coric, Feuerstein, Fortunati, Morgan, Southwick, Temporini). Mens rea has to do with an individual’s intent to commit an act with a certain consequence in mind. The insanity defense aims to prove that certain mental illnesses may handicap a person’s ability to form mens rea. Each state determines a fault in mens rea differently when it comes to the insanity defense and many studies evaluate the similarities and differences between the standards.

Depending on the state, courts use one or multiple tests to determine insanity, each that follow specific guidelines. The M’Naghten Rule is the outcome of what may be regarded as the first and most important case for the insanity plea. Many states use this standard in order to determine insanity. M’Naghten was a man acquitted of a murder charge on this basis that “at the time of committing the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong” (Meynen 15). This standard is made up of three components which are psychopathology, defect of reason, and lack of knowledge. The M’Naghten Rule may be considered one of the tightest standards of the insanity defense and leaves little room for interpretation or loopholes that would benefit the lawyer of a defendant pleading insanity if their client really wasn’t insane at the time time crime was committed.

Another standard that may be used by a state’s court is the irresistible impulse test which aims to determine if the defendant lacked control over his or her actions at the time of the crime due to mental illness. This test is usually used in combination with the M’Naghten standard evaluated in the court in the two states Virginia and New Mexico (Asokan). The test questions a consultant on whether of not the defendant’s mental disorder was to blame for the inability to refrain from their behavior that resulted in the crime. This test is regardless if the defendant was able to differentiate from right or wrong, it is based solely on their ability to control their impulses.

Another standard that is only used by a small number of states is The Durham Standard, which is only used in New Hampshire and the Virgin Islands. This standard recognizes a finding of insanity “if the defendant’s unlawful act was a product of a mental disease or defect” (Asokan). Both of these standards aren’t used all that much because they expand the parameters of individuals who are able to use the insanity defense.

The last standard that many states use in order to evaluate insanity defenses is the American Law Institutes’ Model Penal Code. The American Law Institute states “a person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law” (Myenen 26). This standard was adopted by many states, however, after the perpetrator of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan was acquitted with this standard, many states reverted back to the M’Naghten standard. Many states may have been smart to keep the M’Naghten standard or to revert back to it because the Model Penal Code “allows leeway for exculpating defendants whose capacity was substantially affected, but who, nevertheless, retained some capacity” (Mynen 26). In one case, a woman was found sane under the M’Naghten standard and she petitioned to the court to abolish the M’Naghten standard and instead adopt the Model Penal Code because she believed it would help her win her insanity defense. The Supreme Court of Mississippi held up the M’Naghten Rule (Geary, Law).

Insanity pleas also face some other complications in the courtroom. Insanity pleas don’t bode well with juries and they have more success on bench trials. When a jury hears insanity, they often have a different belief of what an insane person may look like. Historically, convincing jurors that the defendant proves very tricky. However, when a trial comes before a judge, expert testimony is considered a little more seriously and has a better chance of sticking (Higgins 34). Psychiatrists are almost always involved in insanity cases to give expert opinion on the state of mind the defendant was in. these psychiatrists can either become involved if they were already treating this patient, or if they were called upon as a consultant to evaluate the individual in question (Coric, Feuerstein, Fortunati, Morgan, Southwick, Temporini).

The studies above that were cited synthesize the low use of insanity defenses in national court cases as well as outline how they are determined to be found guilty or not. Overall, the studies conclude that insanity is not easy to plead and lay out a strong argument for the controversial nature of the insanity plea. The prevalence of the insanity defense is very minimal in the court system and the specific definitions and elements that comprise the standards that need to be met work to keep people from recklessly using the insanity defense. It is important the general public understands this defense so they not only have faith in the justice system but also become willing to allow seriously mentally ill people to seek treatment instead of be incarcerated.

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Crime Under the Insanity Defense. (2021, Apr 24). Retrieved from