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Mad About the Insanity Defense

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    Today in our legal system, there are many questionable defense tactics. They are

    designed to protect the rights of the charged, and further the cause of justice. However, in many

    cases this betterment of justice has been taken too far, and thus pleas such as “Temporary

    insanity” are born. Indeed, as will be proven, the insanity defense in itself has been stretched

    nearly to its breaking point. The insanity defense will be critically examined, here, and proven

    in some cases necessary while others have no right using the plea.

    The history of the insanity defense goes back as far as government. Yet as Thomas

    Maeder stated in his book Crime and Madness, the Origins and Evolutions of the Insanity

    Defense, surprisingly enough, “Throughout most of history there have been no specific criteria

    for exculpatory insanity”(3). In ancient Hebrew times, as Maeder notes, the law simply states

    that idiots, lunatics, and children below a given age are not to be held criminally responsible (3).

    Indeed, in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, nothing has survived to show any adaption to this

    exception, save a part of Plato’s Laws (3). Platos Laws says that if a defendant is senile, a child

    or proven insane he should be responsible for no more than the payment of civil damages,

    “Except that if he has killed someone and his hands are polluted by murder he must depart to a

    place in another country and live there in exile for a year” (Maeder 3). Furthermore, there are

    scarce traces of early insanity cases, thus it is difficult to make generalizations about the defense,

    yet there have been some noted cases where the defendant was sentenced to life in prison

    (Maeder 4). “By the fifteenth century…If the defendant had committed the act, they had to

    convict; if he was insane, or a minor, or had killed in self-defense, they could recommend

    mercy…” (Maeder 5). In the sixteenth century, however, the jury gained the power to enter a

    “Special Verdict” if they felt the case warranted. By the seventeenth century, the insanity

    defense was firmly in place, thus this plea was commonly accepted. The insanity defense reflects

    a compromise on the part of society and the law. On the one hand, society believes that criminals

    should be punished for their crimes; on the other hand, society believes that people who are ill

    should recieve treatment for their illness. The insanity defense is the compromise: Basically, it

    reflects society’s belief that the law should not punish defendants who are mentally incapable of

    controlling their conduct. In the eighteenth century, the legal standards for the insanity defense

    were varied. Some courts looked to whether the defendant could distinguish between good and

    evil, while others asked whether the defendant “did not know what he did.” By the nineteenth

    century, it was generally accepted that insanity was a question of fact, which was left to the jury

    Today in twentieth century, we still have great qualms about the insanity defense.

    Although we no longer debate what to do with our insane community, we do debate if one is

    insane. Indeed, we have even created excuses for the sane to be “Temporarily Insane”, and all of

    this is highly arguable. In fact, as Gordon Witkn stated in his article “What does it take to be

    crazy?” “About seventeen states now allow verdicts of ‘Guilty but Mentally ill’, which holds a

    defendant responsible while providing for mental treatment in prison… at least three states –

    Montana, Idaho, and Utah – have abolished the insanity defense entirely…” (7). Thus the trend

    that one can escape severe punishment through the insanity defense is becoming less and less

    feasible. Furthermore, this defense is seldom used and rarely successful today (Witkin 7).

    Many individuals have gone unpunished. As Allen Brownsfield stated in his article

    “Defense Attorneys Mad About the Insanity Defense” in Human Events, June 3,1994, page 10,

    “…Lawyers are preparing a defense for Collin Ferguson, the Long Island mass-murderer. His

    attorney, radical activist William Kunstler, argues that American racism drove Ferguson

    insane…” This man had created an almost farcical plea to excuse his obvious hatred towards

    Caucasian Americans. More and more elaborate ways of escaping punishment are being created

    and the question truly is when will this stop? Another disturbing case is portrayed in Milwaukee

    where a defense attorney announced that she may use a defense of “Cultural Psychosis” for a

    teenage girl who had shot and killed another in a fight over a coat (Brownsfield 10).

    The Insanity Defense has not only been used as a tool for obviously guilty individuals to

    escape punishment it is also unfairly administered. Truly, in many cases people who are

    perfectly lucid use the defense successfully claiming they are “Temporarily Insane.” While those

    who the plea was intended for, suffer the worst of fates due to their lack of lucidity to defend

    themselves. One such obvious case is the infamous “Twinkie Defense”. This is one example of

    the insanity plea gone amuk where the defendant got away with murder by using his junkfood

    diet (Twinkies) as reason for his “Snap.” If one can clam that junkfood drove him to murder

    where will this stop? Indeed just a step up would be a wife-batterer who beat his wife so bad he

    killed her, would use a defense that his wife’s temperament drove him to murder her by

    “Temporary Insanity.” Another well known case is of Senator Ted Kennedy who successfully

    used a plea of temporary insanity when a woman was found dead in his car that he had wrecked

    and abandoned over night. From these two examples the precedent becomes clear, creativity,

    wealth and status are the leading factors in the success in of the insanity defense. As Lincoln

    Caplan in the book The Insanity Defense and the Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr. in the case of

    John Hinckley, he had successfully used the temporary insanity plea in the attempted murder of

    even our own President!(100) Today Hinkley resides in a mental hospital where recently he was

    awarded family visitation, while if he were in prison he would never have got these privileges.

    In opposition, it is claimed that the insanity defense is rarely used, according to one

    eight-state study(reported in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law,

    Vol. 19,No. 4, 1991), the insanity defense was used in less than one percent of the cases.

    However, the abundance of the injustice is less consequential than the fact that the injustice has

    occurred. Why should our justice system overlook a loop-hole for criminals to escape

    punishment just because it isn’t used often? Is occasional slavery wrong? Of course. It is also

    argued, according to Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis from a New York Times book report by

    Christopher Lehmann-haupt, that killers minds are horrifically abused and are only doing as

    others have done to them.(2) She claims that each offender acted unconsciously without any

    rational knowledge of what he or she had done. “She argues that each was insane by any

    reasonable definition. Yet in the cases where these killers had been convicted and condemned to

    death, courts hearing the results of the author’s examinations refused to concede mitigating

    circumstances and grant clemency. The killers were treated as if they knew what they were

    doing.”(2) It is not just to acquit individuals who killed tens of people just because they were

    not completely lucid. Indeed a isolation similar to prison is in order to protect the rest of society

    from their madness. Thus treating killers who arguably are insane as if they knew what they

    were doing isn’t wrong. It’s just.

    The insanity defense is a necessary tool to justly deal with the insane. However, the issue

    on who is truly insane or even temporarily insane is up for grabs. The plea is used unjustly in

    many ways as precedent shows. Furthermore many would say that this rare plea is used justly

    whenever used but it is evident that further correction is in order. It is a shame of those people

    who were unjustly killed…”Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these ‘ it might

    have been.’”~John Greenleaf Whittier


    Maeder, Thomas. Crime and Madness, the Orgins and Evolution of the Insanity Defense.

    Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 1985
    Witkin, Gordon. “What does it take to be crazy?” U.S News & Report 12 Jan.1998: Pg7

    Brownfield, Allan. “Defense attorneys mad about the insanity defense.” Human Events
    3 June 1994: Pg.7
    Caplan, Lincoln. The Insanity Defense, And the Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr. David R.
    Godine, Boston, 1984
    Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of the Times.” The New York Times 24 June, 24
    1998: Pg.1

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