Insanity As A Defense Essay
The insanity defense is a defense that is used in the courts to say the defendant was not aware of what they were doing at the time of the crime. The terms of such a defense are to be found in the instructions presented by the trial judge to the jury at the close of a case. These instructions can be drawn from any of several rules used in the determination of mental illness. The final determination of mental illness rests solely on the jury who uses information drawn from the testimony of “expert” witnesses, usually professionals in the field of psychology.
The net result of such a determination places an individual accordingly, be it placement in a mental facility, incarceration, or outright release. Because of these factors, there are several problems raised by the existence of the insanity defense. Problems such as the actual possibility of determining mental illness, justifiable placement of judged “mentally ill” offenders, and the overall usefulness of such a defense. In all, I believe that these problems, as well as others which will be mentioned later, lead us to the conclusion that the insanity defense is useless and should be abolished entirely.
We have seen some cases in the past, such as Lorena Bobbett pleading insanity. Insanity is a legal, not a medical definition. Therefore, mental illness and insanity are not synonymous: only some mental illness constitutes insanity. Insanity, however, includes not only mental illness but also mental deficiencies. Due to this, there are problems in exactly how to apply a medical theory to a legal matter (Gerber 8). The legal concepts of mental illness and insanity raise questions in a conflict between what are termed legalistic criminology and scientific criminology: mens rea, punishment v. reatment, responsibility, and prisons v. hospitals.
This debate seesaws to and from amidst a gray area between law and science. The one problem with the theory of mental illness is that is all it is a theory. Scientists live by theories but legal authorities do not trust them. By applying a loose theory such as mental illness to law we are in essence throwing the proverbial “monkey wrench” into the wheels of justice. At the center of the legal use of insanity lies the mens rea, the mental element of a crime or the intent to commit a criminal act. Every crime involves a physical act, or actus reus, and a mental act, or mens rea, the non-physical cause of behavior.
The difficulty here lies in analyzing the mens rea. In order to do this lawyers apply one of several rules used by psychologists. These rules range from the Irresistible Impulse Test to the M’Naghten Rule. Each of these rules approach mental illness capacity in a different way. The M’Naghten Rule, also known as the right-wrong test, arose in 1843 during the trial of Daniel M’Naghten who argued that he was not criminally responsible for his actions because he suffered from delusions at the time of the killing.
The M’Naghten Rule says that, a defendant may be excused from criminal responsibility if at the time of the commission of the act the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from a disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and the quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know that he was doing what was wrong. So according to this rule, a person is basically insane if he or she is unable to distinguish between right and wrong as a result of some mental disability. Criticisms of the M’Naghten Rule has come from both legal and medical professions.
Many criticize that the test is unsound in its view of human psychology. Psychologists have said the theory of partial insanity or monomania, that is that a person could be sane in all other respects and yet have a cognitive delusion, has also been exploded by the more modern theory of the integrated psyche. (Gerber 30). Additionally, the test is criticized for defining responsibility solely in terms of cognition. While cognitive symptoms may reveal disorder, they alone are not sufficient to give an adequate picture of such a disorder or determine responsibility.
Also, it has been shown that individuals deemed insane by psychologists have possessed the ability to differentiate right from wrong. The Irresistible Impulse Test (IIT) is a rule excludes from criminal responsibility a person whose mental disease makes it impossible to control personal conduct. Unlike the M’Naghten Rule, the criminal may be able to distinguish between right and wrong, but may be unable to exercise self-control because of a disabling mental condition. Normally this test is combined with the M’Naghten Rule.
Many of the criticisms of the (IIT) center around the claim that the view of volition is so extremely narrow that it can be misleading. Just as the M’Naghten Rule focused on cognition rather than the function of the person in an integrated fashion, the (IIT) abstracts the element of volition in a way that fails to assess a person’s function in terms of an integrated personality. Additionally, it has been asserted that the concept at best has medical significance in only minor crimes resulting from obsession-compulsion, and that seldom, if ever, can it be shown that this disorder results in the commission of a major crime (Winslade 11).
Such a claim is subject to the objection that it cannot be conclusively proven. Interestingly, it has been shown by many psychiatric authorities that no homicidal or suicidal crime ever results from obsession-compulsion neurosis. Another criticism of this test is the difficulty of proving the irresistibility of the impulse, which the definition of the test requires. The jury has the final decision, and is faced with deciding when the impulse was irresistible and when it was merely not resisted, a task that psychiatrists suggest is impossible to perform.
We are also able to argue that the test is one of volition. It is too narrow in that it fails to recognize mental illness characterized by broadening and reflection. (Gerber 42). The test is misleading in its suggestion that where a crime is committed as a result of emotional disorder due to insanity, it must be sudden and impulsive. The Durham Rule, also known as the Products Test, is based on the contention that insanity represents many personality factors, all of which may not be present in every case.
It was brought about by Judge David Bazelon in the case of Durham v. U. S. who rejected the M’Naghten Rule and stated that the accused is not criminally responsible if the unlawful act was the product of mental disease or defect. The primary problem with this rule of course lies in its meaning. Again it is impossible for us to define mental disease or defect, and product does not give the jury a reliable standard by which to base a decision. Substantial Capacity Test which focuses on the reason and will of the accused.
It states that at the time of the crime, as a result of some mental disease or defect, the accused lacked the substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongful of their conduct or conform their conduct to the requirements of the law. This test is disputable in the fact that it is not only impossible to prove capacity of reason or will, but to even test such abstracts seems absurd. Furthermore, the term “substantial capacity” lies question in that it is an abstract impossible to define. The meaning of insanity is the legal definition as put forth in a rule such as the M’naghten Rule or whatever school of thought is in use on any given day.
The legal test is applied in an adversary system which pitches lawyer against psychiatrist and psychiatrist against psychiatrist. Because of this, the psychiatrist is often perceived not as a scientist but a partisan for the side which is paying for his testimony (Jeffery 56). The major problem in this case being that the use of a neutral expert is impossible to implement. In the end the determination of insanity is a layman’s decision since it is the jury which ultimately decides whether the defendant is sane or insane. This of course is ludicrous since professional scientists cannot agree on the meaning of mental illness.
How can a layman make such a decision especially after listening to contradictory testimony which is manipulated by opposing lawyers. The psychiatrist finds himself in a double bind: he has no medical definition of mental illness and he must answer questions from lawyers concerning legal insanity, right and wrong, and irresistible impulses. As stated by Packer: “The insanity defense cannot tolerate psychiatric testimony since the ethical foundations of the criminal law are rooted in beliefs about human rationality, and free will. These are articles of moral faith rather than scientific fact. ” (Jeffery 62)