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“Some traits or dispositions are inherited, but the continuity of behavior, including
antisocial activity, is maintained by social contexts and other aspects of the
- Avshalom Caspi
Criminal insanity is a topic which sparks much heated debate. What causes
insanity? Is insanity a physical or psychological problem? Is insanity actually a disease,
or just a figment of a persons imagination? Groliers Encyclopedia describes insanity as
“a mental defect or disorder sufficient to prevent a person from knowing the difference
between right and wrong conduct or from understanding the nature of his or her actions.”
This definition is one which would seem to be a good representation of what insanity
truly is. Insanity applies to criminals in an interesting way. If a criminal does not know
the difference between right and wrong then can they be held accountable for the crimes
they commit? If they don’t understand that what they are doing is a crime then should
they be punished as if they were criminals or treated as patients with a disease? This
problem is one that has plagued courts, lawyers, juries and defendants for a long time and
does not appear to be any closer to a solution.
A common belief as to why people first become criminally insane is because of
the way they were treated as children. Many examples to support this theory can be
found throughout history. One example is the infamous Charles Manson. Charles
Mansons’ home life was anything but normal; he was, in fact, the son of a “teenage,
bisexual, alcoholic prostitute, and was once traded for a pitcher of beer” (”Charles…”).
Another example is Henry Lee Lucas, a famous serial killer, who “as a child, lost an eye
after a severe beating from his mother” (”Serial…”). Finally, Pedro Alonso Lopez,
believed to be the key player in over 300 murders was “kicked out of his house when only
8 years old” (”Serial…”). These cases, as well as many others, seem to indicate a
correlation between abuse as a child and violent tenancies as an adult. A renowned
psychologist, Shervert Frazier, has concluded that many “killers have been subjected to
brutalizing treatment that generated overwhelming hostile and ultimately murderous
emotions in them. Many had bean beaten repeatedly or sexually abused as children”
(Methvin 35). Another common link has been found that proves that people who act
violently as children will most likely grow up to do the same. For instance, Jeffrey
Dahmer as a child “liked to torture and kill animals. As an adult he did the same to
humans” (”Jeffery Dahmer”).
Although criminal insanity is often thought to be a purely psychological disorder
much proof has appeared over the years to have sparked a theory that criminal insanity is
not in fact psychological, but instead a physical disorder. Dr. Adrian Raine, of the
University of South California, is one believer of this theory. In his studies and tests he
has found “that in psychopathic murderers there was less activity in the prefrontal cortex
of the brain” (”Natural Born…” 10 ). Could this lack of activity in an area of the brain
that is known to control certain emotions in people be the cause of criminal insanity? It
is possible, but that is most likely not the only cause. Dr. Raine says that he believes that
violent and psychopathic behavior is caused by environmental factors in additional to
biological ones (”Natural Born…” 10 ). Many other psychiatrists and doctors feel the
same way as Dr. Raine does. One psychiatrist, Dr. George B. Palermo uses CAT scans to
“electronically scan the brain” (”Doctor is Allowed…” 11) of criminals to determine if
they where criminally insane at the time of the murders they committed. Dr. Palermo
also suggested the use of chromosome analysis for the same purpose. “Some specialists
say chromosomes, which carry hereditary characteristics, are similar among the
criminally insane and could indicate a persons tendency to criminal behavior”, he says
(”Doctor…” 11). These scientists, doctors, and psychiatrists feel that there is a deeper,
biological reason for criminal insanity.
Many scientists believe that there are ways to predict who will eventually become
criminally insane or commit horrendous crimes. Bruce Bower, author of “Delinquent
Development”, says that “youngsters who spent most of their childhoods with behavioral
and social problems and entered puberty earlier than their peers seemed most likely to
turn to violent crime.” As Ronald Holmes says, “Mental health professionals and
probation/parole officers may be in a position to recognize potentially dangerous people
who are physically – and more importantly – psychologically poised for fatal violence on
a large scale” (10). By saying this Holmes points out how important it is for these
professionals to always be on the lookout for a person with the potential to become
criminally insane. Holmes also points out how these people might indeed make it
possible to prevent someone from a psychological breakdown that will eventually lead to
them becoming insane and possibly criminally insane. Although psychologists must
always be alert for signs of mental illness in a person the justice system must watch for
the possibility of someone being criminally insane as well. For example, “Charles
Manson was an ex-convict and had spent more than half his life in prison before the age
of 35″ (”Charles…”). Why the court system didn’t identify the potential in Manson to
become criminally insane is unexplainable. Psychiatrist Helen L. Morrison, and expert
on criminal psychology has said about the criminally insane, “These are basically
cookie-cutter people, so much alike psychologically I could close my eyes and be talking
to any one of them. They are phenomenally alike in the way their psychology is set, the
way they function, and how they’re misdiagnosed” (Methvin, 35). If this is true, and
these criminally insane are so alike then one would think that there should be some kind
of “cookie-cutter” way to diagnose if a person will become criminally insane or not. For
some reason this is not the case. Even though these personalities are so similar they are
different enough to evade any system of detection that has been devised as of yet. Dr.
Morrison says that a criminally insane persons “psychological development . . . stops at
about six months of age. As an infant, [he] does not develop the ability to differentiate
himself from others; he cannot distinguish a human being from, say, a chair or any other
inanimate object” (Methvin 35). Is this what the criminally insane see the world as? A
conglomeration of lifeless objects that have no true importance and therefore it does not
matter whether they live or die? Dr. Morrison says about insane criminals, “Murder to
him is no more than child’s play, like taking apart a clock to see what makes it tick”
(Methvin, 35). It would appear that this is indeed the way they see other human beings.
Although in theory all of these ideas to identify people who have the potential to become
criminally insane in later life seems wonderful in practice it rarely ever works. This is
proved by Ed Kemper, a famous serial killer. “Once he visited his court appointed
psychiatrist with a head in the trunk of his car. Curiously, the psychiatrist said that he
was ‘quite well adjusted’, and doing great” (”Serial…”).
According to Dr. Frazier many people have murderous fantasies but are able to
control them through a series of “bypass techniques”. Some examples of these bypass
techniques include walking to the point of exhaustion, strenuous nighttime employment
or temporary isolation (Methvin, 34). Many times people are able to control their
murderous feelings, but those who are not able are the ones who eventually become the
criminally insane, lusting after blood at every moment. Often times it is a highly
publicized murder that will make the people that are able to control their feelings burst
loose and start to commit crimes. In 1974, Dean Corll killed 27 homosexuals in Texas.
Once this event hit the television and newspapers a series of homosexual murders started
around the country en masse (Methvin, 34). Although these bypass techniques do work
for some people, the majority are not able to control their feelings and become what is
known as criminally insane. Dr. Frazier says the source of the problem of criminal
insanity lies there. He feels that if the people are given assistance in controlling their
emotions before they explode then the problem will eventually fix itself (Methvin). This
theory makes sense because if there is a way to identify the problem early then eventually
the problem will disappear because the early detection will lead to less people actually
committing crimes which will lead to less people following their ideas and what we will
eventually end up with less crime in total.
A persons environment is what makes them into what they are, and since society
controls the environment people live in it is also logical to assume society has a great
impact on people. Often if a person feels segregated or excluded they will become very
self-dependent and uncaring towards others, emotions which may lead to criminal
insanity in the future. Ed Kemper, a serial killer had a near genius I.Q. and because of
that was shunned by his peers as a child (”Serial Killers”). It is possible that this
exclusion is what eventually caused him to do the horrendous things that he did.
The final aspect of criminal insanity is the insanity plea often used by criminals when on
trail for murder and other crimes. The insanity defense almost never works for criminals
facing life in prison or the death penalty. Many times a jury will look for signs of
premeditation which is may be one sign that the criminal is not insane but instead just an
evil person who enjoys killing. Fox Butterfield quotes one example of this in her article
“Sane and Guilty”, “The insanity defense rarely ever succeeds,” she says, “The jury,
noting that Mr. Salvi had taken target practice the day before the assaults . . . found that
he was not insane and therefore guilty” (2). This is the way that trials where the
defendant is using the insanity plea often go. While once in a while there will be a case
of a criminal who is, instead of being sent to prison or to their death are sent to a
psychiatric hospital most often they are issued a regular sentence for prison. Opposition
of the criminal insanity plea argue that the majority of the time when a “psychopath” is
sentenced to a psychiatric hospital instead of prison, they are released very quickly to
make room for more mentally ill that are coming in. Once these people return to society
they turn back to what the did before, killing. It is a fact that most criminals who kill
once and are released will do so again. A large number of people believe that the
insanity plea should be completely abolished because it gives criminals a break, which is
something that most people are not in favor of. Christine Stapleton explains her view of
the insanity plea when she says, “People who are too insane, retarded or mentally
unstable to face their criminal charges live in hospitals instead of prisons. They wear
their own clothes instead of uniforms. Most get their own rooms, and some of them will
be out of the hospital while sane inmates convicted of similar crimes remain in prison”
(1A). This is indeed a fact. If someone is found to be criminally insane then they get a
much lighter sentence and get the benefits that Stapleton has described; this is why so
many people are against the use of the criminal insanity plea. There is one problem to be
found in the argument against the insanity plea. That problem is if insanity is truly a
disorder that in not controllable, can we punish people just because they suffer from a
disease that happens to make them kill? This question is the backbone of the fight for the
insanity plea and is one which people do not often wish to face. The only definite way
we may ever have an answer to whether we should punish them is to figure out if insanity
is actually a disorder or is controllable to a certain extent. Once this is determined, I feel
the choice will be much easier for people to make as to whether the insanity plea should
be made illegal or not.
Criminal insanity is still a strongly debated topic with many areas that have yet to
be resolved. Specific points about criminal insanity such as whether insanity is a
psychological or physical problem and whether the insanity plea is beneficial or it just
gives criminals a break have people fighting both for and against them. The fact that so
many people have admitted to having strongly violent urges or come close to actually
killing another person ensures that there will be professionals working hard to try and
find the hidden answers that relate to criminal insanity for a long time. No matter what
opinion you believe is correct there is one indisputable fact that exists: there are people in
the world that commit murder, rape, and other horrible crimes for reasons that they do
not even understand. Although some people kill because they enjoy killing or are just
plain sadistic, many others kill because it is an urge within themselves that they cannot
suppress. These are the people who say that there is “an ‘entity’ within their
personality, an entity which impels them to kill” (Holmes). These people are the ones
who, when they kill, do not mean to and feel true remorse about what they’ve done. That
is why it is so imperative that, if criminal insanity is found to be a disorder, we find either
a cure and/or an early detection method to help these people who suffer from the effects
of criminal insanity.
Bower, Bruce. “Delinquent Developments.” Science News v 143. 1 May 1993:
Butterfield, Fox. “Sane and Guilty.” New York Times 24 March 1996: 2.
“Charles Manson.” Http://www1.mhv.net/~nute/killers/manson.html (19 May 1996).
“Doctor is Allowed to Scan Dahmer’s Brain.” New York Times 11 Nov 1991: 11.
Holmes, Ronald, and Stephen Holmes. “Understanding Mass Murder: A Starting Point.”
Federal Probation Mar. 1993: 53-61.
“Insanity.” Groliers Electronic Encyclopedia 1994 ed.
“Jeffery Dahmer.” Http://www1.mhv.net/~nute/killers/dahmer.html (19 May 1996).
Methvin, Eugene. “Psycho Killer, Qu’est-ce que c’est?: The Face of Evil.” National
Review 23 Jan 1995: 34+.
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