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Insanity Defense Essay

Imagine for a moment, someone has just inexplicably murdered a mother or child. Imagine the rage, tearing you apart, physically making you shake or be ill. At the same time this rage is entangled and somewhat smothered by the crushing grief welling up inside of you. A thought flashes into your head, “I will kill the person responsible for this!” but our sanity stops that action. A persons insanity allows you to know that to actually carry out a murder is illogical, immoral, and illegal. You know that your actions will land you a spot in hell next to all the other Murders. That thought process is exactly what separates you from a killer. Although with the right lawyer, the person who committed this tragic crime may someday be able to be free. This murderer may be able to push such anguish onto another family because they were let free on grounds of temporary insanity. The insanity defense should be wiped out nationwide unless certain tests of mental insanity are met and a patient has a history of a mental illness. The insanity defense is a criminal defense that is used when the defendant’s case states that the crime occurred because the defendant had a severe mental disease or defect and was unable to apprehend the wrongfulness of his or her acts.

When someone claims insanity, they are not held responsible for their criminal actions. There are two pieces of evidence the first being the accused was unable to tell right from wrong and the second that the accused did not intend to act the way he or she did and/or could not control their behavior. The insanity defense should not be a valid excuse to free criminals. Insanity is a legal term, not a psychological one, and experts disagree whether it has valid psychological meaning. Critics of not guilty by reason of insanity have claimed that too many sane defendants use the insanity defense to escape justice; that the state of psychological knowledge encourages expensive “dueling expert” contests that juries are unlikely to understand; that, in practice, the defense unfairly excludes some defendants. Research on not guilty by reason of insanity fails to support most of these claims but some serious problems may exist with this.

The insanity defense goes back to 1843 when a man by the name of Daniel McNaughtan attempted to assassinate Edward Drummond, Secretary to the British Prime Minister Robert Peel. McNaughtan was under the impression that he was being prosecuted, so he reacted with murder. Daniel McNaughtan killed Robert Peel’s secretary. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Following his trial, he spent the next twenty years in a mental asylum until his death. Soon after this case, the English House of Lords set standards for the insanity defense which they called McNaugtan’s Rule: “Every man is to be presumed to be sane, and…that to establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of 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 he was doing what was wrong.” (Encyclopedia Of Everyday Law) Soon after this rule became legal, the United States criminal justice system adopted this precedent. In 1981, after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, the insanity defense received a lot of harsh publish criticism. John Hickley was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Various people argued that Hinckley was guilty because the premeditation of the crime committed proved him to be sane, therefore the insanity defense should not have proved him not guilty. Hickley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and remains in psyciatic care. This allows the mentally ill defendant to be found liable of his or her crime, but requires them to seek psychiatric treatment or be placed in a mental hospital. When the defendants are well enough, they are moved to a prison to serve their sentences. Because of cases like this, the insanity defense still undergoes a lot of public criticism today. Although, during a more recent trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, who mutilated and consumed his young victims, the defendant tried to use the insanity defense, but the jurors found the criminal both sane and guilty.

This case showed that the insanity defense does not work for all criminals and supported the public’s criticism of the insanity defense. In another famous case, the Unabomber case, defendant Kaczynski refused to allow his attorney to present an insanity defense, and instead pled guilty and was sentenced to a life in prison. Had he let his attorney go through with the temporary insanity plea, there is a good chance that Kaczynski would be a free man today and could potentially kill again. The insanity defense does not eliminate the responsibility of a criminal act from the person committing the crime; instead, it is a defense mechanism for criminals who argue that at the time of the crime the defendant did not have willful intent due to a severe mental defect or disease. As stated before, numerous people are opposed to the insanity defense. They are against the insanity defense because they see it as a means where the defendant can avoid the consequences of his or her actions. People fear violent crimes and will be more apt to prosecute a criminal versus allowing the criminal another chance. The public, as they should be, is shocked when a criminal is successful in pleading insanity, is sent to a mental institution, and then is released once deemed “cured” by a team of physicians. The public does not see this as punishment, because it is not. A short stint in a mental institution is nothing compared to serving hard time. Some studies suggest that prison time is ineffectual, that may be but isolating violent criminals is a public safety matter. If left to their own devices, there is a very real possibility that they may strike again.

The temporary insanity plea is almost always used in cases of extreme mutilation, murder, and other horrific crimes, yet after undergoing a physiological evaluation some of the most vile people earth are allowed to walk free. Incomprehensibly, the very people who most deserve to be locked up for life are the ones who most often get off by claiming temporary insanity. Due to the violent nature of there crimes it is not a stretch to claim that they were insane. The vast majority of violent criminals are repeat offenders, and that affects every taxpayer in the United States, because it costs tens of thousands of dollars just to run a criminal through the justice system, not to mention the cost of providing care for them afterward. Once a person has proven they have the capacity to commit such an offence, they have proven that they are not fit to enjoy the freedoms that we as Americans are entitled. The insanity defense is an excuse for criminals to break the law and have no bearing on punishments. In most criminal cases the insanity plea is just a defense strategy aimed at delivering guilty defendants from serving time in prison or getting the death penalty. Most defendants that are found guilty by reason of insanity are released from the mental hospital years if not decades earlier than they would have been if they served their regular prison sentence. The insanity defense allows criminals to avoid the punishments they should be receiving for the crime they committed.

When someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity, jurisdictions require that the person spend at least some time in a psychiatric facility; if not automatically, many states require commitment to a psychiatric facility on grounds of mental illness, dangerousness, or both; most states do not have a limit on the amount of time that someone can be institutionalized insane. How long they spend in an institution also varies by state, but on average most stay three and a half years; in New Jersey 35% of the sample were still in institutions 8 years later; in Michigan it was 9 1/2 months; in Illinois it was 17 1/2 months, however, in this sample over 70% had been found incompetent prior to trial and had spent an average of 38.4 months in institutions. (Washington Post)= In the early 1990’s involving eight different states a study was conducted. They found that less than one percent of criminal defendants used the insanity defense. Only a quarter of these resulted in successful acquittals. Today a number of states have replaced the option of pleading “not guilty by reason of insanity” with pleading “guilty but mentally ill”. Currently, Idaho, Montana, and Utah banned insanity defenses, along with the supreme courts ruling. Along with this, between sixty and seventy percent of cases in which the insanity plea is invoked are for crimes other then murder. In actuality, it is used approximately 0.9% of the time. There are 51 different types of insanity defenses in the United States, one for each set of state laws, and one for federal law when dealing with someone pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. With astronomical operating costs of a psychiatric facility that increase the tax burden on every tax payer in the nation, especially the maximum security facilities that this caliber of criminal is housed at, the temporary insanity precedent set forth over a century ago should be phased out. Unfortunately, murder and violent crime has and will continue to happen as long as there are human beings living in close proximity, it is and ugly and regrettable reality of human society. There is no real solution to this horrible truth, but the closest and most logical option to preventing the deaths of more innocent people is for temporary insanity regulations to become much more strict. This will inevitably save lives, for if just one murderer has a second opportunity to kill another person that is one more person that is needlessly killed because the killer was given a second chance and not put in prison the first time they proved they have the capacity to take a life.

Works Cited
“Insanity Defense”. The Lectric Law Library’s Lexicon. 2 February, 2009. 12 February, 2009.http://www.lectlaw.com/def/d029.html

Martin, John P. “The Insanity Defense: A closer look””. Washington Post. 27 February, 1998. WP. 24 February, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpsrv/local/longterm/aron/qa227.html

“Other U.S. News: AMA Opposes Insanity Plea.” Facts On File World News Digest 23 Dec. 1983. World News Digest. Facts On File News Services. 23 Feb. 2009.

“Supreme Court: Arizona Insanity Defense Law Upheld.” Facts On File World News Digest 29 June 2006. World News Digest. Facts On File News Services. 23 Feb. 2009.


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