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Criminal Insanity

“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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