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Historical Overview of the Insanity Defense Essay

The basic objective of this project is to be able to narrate the history of the creation and use of insanity defense. The theory of using insanity to defend those who are charged with serious criminal acts like murder has been espoused by the proponents of the insanity defense ever since this particular move gained popularity especially among lawyers who successfully defended their clients by winning lesser forms of penalties (sometimes, even early freedom) for their clients by pleading that their clients are insane upon the commission of the crime.

The theory in the use of and management of cases where insanity defense is used is, according to George Fletcher (1978) is that the use of insanity defense forces the resolution “of our doubts about whether anyone is ever responsible for criminal conduct (Melton, Petrila, Poythress, Slobogin, 2007, p. 774). ” The theory of the insanity defense is better explained in the M’Naghten Rules of 1843 which was created after the attempted assassination of Robert Peel, then the Prime Minister of UK, involving yet again another insane murderer (which was not the first time in UK history).

It says: “at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of the wrongfulness of his acts (Moriarty, 2001, p. 153). ” The following briefly outlines the significant developments in history leading to the establishment of the insanity defense as how it is known today – introduction, theoretical framework, history and the conclusion discussing the impact of the use of insanity defense.

History Several notable individuals in history have made insanity as their excuse on why they were able to commit the crime(s) that they were accused of. But this is not to say that this has always been effective. For one, insanity defense was not recognized in some parts of the world in some points in time. Even if it was recognized, not all of those who opted for it was freed or was declared innocent. As early as the seventeenth century, there were already issues involving crime and insanity.

For example, Dorothy Talbye was believed to be insane when she murdered her daughter in 1638, but she was not able to use the insanity defense because it was not recognized in the colonial America’s system of justice during that particular era (Rogers, 2008, p. 7). More than a century later, the isolation of the cases wherein insanity is involved and the eventual development of the insanity defense started with the creation of the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800 which was ratified in the United Kingdom.

This move was prompted by the rage expressed by the public after the judicial system in place for managing those who are considered mentally ill or insane resulted in the release of James Hadfield, who declared he was insane or mentally ill when he attempted to murder King George III (Moriarty, 2001, p. 164). Thinking that there are loose ends and potentially problematic areas in managing those who are charged with crime but who are insane, UK finally enacted the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800.

This was followed by the M’Naghten Rules of 1843, which influenced many related laws and rules applied in the US justice system before further developments influenced significant changes in how the insane is persecuted or how the justice system accommodates the plea for insanity in defense of criminal charge (Moriarty, 2001, p. 165). Using the insanity defense to escape death was an option for those who are charged with murder not just in the UK, but in the United States as well.

As the US justice system progressed, it also made several adjustments when it comes to handling the insanity defense, developments which either complimented/helped or countered the insanity defense. One example is the introduction of the “irresistible impulse” in the US justice system (particularly in Ohio) in 1834 which explains one side of the insanity defense – that despite being aware that the action was illegal, there was still a commission of the act because the individual lost control of his or her action because of mental impairment.

This feature has had its run in US but was not enforced in UK at all (Moriarty, 2001, p. 153). There were some developments during the next century after the idea of irresistible impulse was popularized in several court proceedings in the US. By 1954, there was the popular Durham Rule first featured in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit which focused on the characteristic of mental disease and defect leading to the insanity of the accused.

But this particular aspect was getting fewer and fewer supporters that by the start of the 1970s it was very seldom used anymore (Mackay, 1995, p. 110). By 1972, the Brawner Rule replaced the Durham rule during the case of the United States versus Brawner in the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia Circuit, with the Brawner rule stressing that the Brawner rule reduces the jury role in the proceedings. This development, however, was not considered as a national precedent because it was a circuit case and not a case in the US Supreme Court.

The relevance of this rule will be shadowed by the implementation of the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 (Thompson, 2007, p. 114). The shift towards drastically reconsidering the design for managing those who are accused of murder but gets away with the plea of insanity in US, like in UK, required a high profile case involving an assassination attempt on an important political leader. In this case, it was the case of John Hinckley Jr. and his assassination attempt on the US president Ronald Reagan and his use of the insanity defense.

Because of how easily it seems that Hinckley got away because of the loose ends the insanity defense manages to exploit, the changes in the law (Title 18, U. S. Code, Section 17) now requires those who will use the insanity defense to be able to prove convincingly that he or she is really severely insane (Thompson, 2007, p. 114). In 1986, there was a case in the US (Ford v. Wainright) wherein the impact of insanity defense was reflected once more. In this case, the person who was charged pleaded that he was insane.

Because of this, he cannot be executed in lieu of the existing US common law on insane defendants and how this type of individuals cannot be executed even if they are implicated in cases that merit the death sentence (Thompson, 2007, p. 114). Conclusion: Impact of the Use of Insanity Defense When insanity defense became a popular tool for lawyers to use so that their client can have a lesser punishment, there were changes based on how the public as well as the lawmakers have reacted on this predicament. The 1982 Hinckley case prompted the creation of bills as well as initiatives for the insanity defense to be revised.

The United States Congress was involved, as well as many local state governments. Media entity saw that this topic has captured the attention of the public, and wanting to know what the people think about it, several polls were conducted and it revealed the sentiments of the public – that the use of insanity defense often meant that justice was not served and that because of this practice many guilty people are being set free instead of being punished (Melton, Petrila, Poythress, Slobogin, 2007, p. 774).


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