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Mad About The Insanity Defense Essay, Research Paper
Mad about the Insanity Defense
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
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