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Famous Cases That Used the Insanity Defense

Famous Cases That Used the Insanity Defense

Despite the fact that the press devotes a large portion of its criminal court coverage to those cases when individuals seek to reduce the criminal charges they face by pleading insanity, insanity is only invoked as a defense against criminal charges in a small number of cases. Data suggests that individuals attempt to invoke an insanity-based defense in criminal court to combat less than one percent of all criminal charges. If you need legal advice and assistance, contact defense lawyers.

A criminal court typically only accepts the insanity defense in one quarter of the cases in which the defense is attempted. Nine in ten defendants who successfully employ an insanity defense to invalidate the most severe criminal charges they face have been previously diagnosed as suffering from a mental defect, thus proving the inefficacy of illegitimate temporary insanity pleas.

High profile criminal court cases in which the defendant employed an insanity-based defense include the prosecution of David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, and the criminal charges filed against Dan White, which resulted in the formation of the "Twinkie Defense."

The Twinkie Defense was never presented in a criminal court as a literal defense. White's attorneys actually attempted to demonstrate that White should be exonerated of the criminal charges he faced because he suffered from so severe a depression as to make him act in a manner radically different than he would have otherwise.

The Twinkie Defense attempted to illustrate White's depression by the manifestation of its symptoms. He had recently quit his job, spurned his wife's advances, changed from being clean cut to being slovenly, and transformed from being fanatical about working out and strictly monitoring his diet to consuming what was for him a high amount of junk food, including Coca-Cola. 

They did not argue that he was driven insane by consuming junk food, such as Twinkies, but rather attempted to use pseudo-science which said that elements of a person's diet could exacerbate already present mood swings.

The Son of Sam may be the most famous example of a criminal court accepting a plea of insanity which lead to a reduction in the severity of criminal charges. The Son of Sam attacks were a series of shootings that occurred in New York City in 1976 and 1977. 

The eight shootings from July 1976 until August 1977 resulted in the deaths of six individuals and the woundings of another seven people. The victims of these attacks were either young women or their male companions. Most of the women attacked had long, dark hair, resulting in many young New Yorkers cutting their hair short or dying it light colors.

When Berkowitz was finally captured in August 1977 he reportedly told police "You got me. What took you so long?" Berkowitz had written two frantic letters, one left near the corpse of a victim, the other sent to a reporter covering the case. In his letters Berkowitz said he was committing the attacks under orders from a being he calls "father Sam," who "won't let him stop killing until he gets his fill of blood." 

Under interrogation Berkowitz told investigators that "Sam" was an ancient demon who possessed his neighbor's dog. Berkowitz said he had once attempted to kill the dog but was prevented by supernatural intervention.

Berkowitz's attempt at an insanity defense was, despite overwhelming evidence of his unstable mental state, denied due to  public sentiment arising from the sense of terror he had inflicted upon the area for more than a year. In criminal court he faced charges resulting in six life sentences for the murders, with additional criminal charges for each assault and attempted murder. 

He is currently sentenced to at least 365 years for the consecutive life sentences. He has since turned down his parole hearings, stating he has come to terms with his crimes and believes that the criminal court was right to sentence him to life in prison.

A Brief History of the Insanity Plea

A Brief History of the Insanity Plea

Greek and Roman law allowed for a defense based upon an insanity of the defendant which constituted a diminished capacity to distinguish right from wrong. Insanity makes its first appearance in English common law in 1724, although the rights of the insane in English criminal law were not established until the passage of the M’Naghten Rule. However, some experts in criminal law at the time argued that the M’Naghten Rule had a serious shortcoming.
In 1984 the United States Congress passed a Bill which sought to abolish or severely limit the recognition of an insanity defense as a method to be cleared of charges under criminal law. The Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 required a defendant’s insanity to be severe and the direct cause of his violation of criminal law. It also establishes that the burden of proving an insanity charge lies with the defense. Before this Act, the prosecution was required to prove a defendant’s sanity beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Act also limited the role of expert psychiatric witnesses under the belief that a preponderance of evidence from psychiatric witnesses took the decision out of the hands of jurors. One benefit that was granted to defendants who had successfully employed a defense based on insanity was the implementation of more strict procedures to protect the rights of individuals while hospitalized. The Insanity Defense Reform Act also provided for general guidelines governing when a person would be released after being placed in a facility for mental treatment.

The Legal Issues of Insanity Pleas You Must Know

The Legal Issues of Insanity Pleas You Must Know

The right of a defendant to attempt to reduce the charges facing him or her by entering an insanity plea has its basis in the earliest known criminal laws. Greeks and Romans believed that an insanity plea moved a person outside of the normal jurisdiction of everyday criminal laws, although this is because those people perceived insanity as the result of divine action.
 
 
Early English common law also provided a framework for a defendant to file an insanity plea after criminal laws were found to be deficient in their handling of the mentally unstable. An attempted assassination of King George III resulted in the first modern criminal laws providing special legal standing for individuals entering an insanity plea.
 
 
In May of 1800, James Hadfield failed in an attempt to assassinate the King. Criminal laws in effect in England considered the attempted assassination of the King a case of treason and criminal laws afforded a treasonous defendant with special rights. Hadfield was allowed to retain two lawyers for the treason trial, though criminal laws governing other charges would have required him to defend himself.
 
 
Hadfield chose Thomas Erskine, who was the best lawyer in England, to be his chief counsel. Erskine's defense presented the earliest modern example of an insanity plea. Erskine successfully argued that Hadfield was operating under the delusion that he needed to die by another's hand and thought the best way to accomplish this goal was to try to kill the King. Hadfield was found not guilty.
 
 
Criminal laws in effect only provided for the detention of dangerous individuals until their next moment of lucidity. There was concern in the Parliament that Hadfield would be released when his delusions faded and that then he would attempt assassination at a later time. As a result of their concern, a bill was presented in Parliament just four days after Hadfield's trial concluded. 
 
 
The Criminal Lunatics Act changed English criminal laws to provide for the detention of a person who appeared to commit a crime as the result of even temporary insanity, even if he or she did not enter an insanity plea.
 
 
Criminal laws in the United States share a similar foundation. Foucha v. Louisiana is a 1992 Supreme Court decision which provided some protection to an individual who is committed to a mental health facility as the result of entering an insanity plea. Prior to this ruling, criminal laws in Louisiana provided for the incarceration of a person who had entered an insanity plea or been found not guilty by reason of insanity in a psychiatric hospital until both the patient's psychosis faded and he or she was no longer a threat to others.
 
 
Criminal laws had allowed trial courts handling the appeals of people in psychiatric hospitals to be kept in these facilities, even if these people had been medically deemed sane, if they could be considered a danger to themselves or others by the court. Terry Foucha, the petitioner in this case, had been committed on the grounds that he had a mental illness and was dangerous. 
 
 
After treatment for the psychosis induced by his dependency on drugs, he continued to be hospitalized on the grounds that he had an anti-social personality. Anti-social personality disorders, however, are not considered mental illnesses nor are they treatable by psychiatrists. The Court ruled that an individual acquitted due to an insanity plea cannot be held for reason that would not also hold an individual who entered a guilty plea.
 
 
There are several other laws and rulings that address the rights of an individual who enters an insanity plea. Wainwright v. Greenfield ruled that a defendant invoking his or her Miranda rights does not invalidate his or her ability to enter an insanity plea.
 
 
The most broad reaching law governing individuals seeking to enter an insanity plea is the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984. This law overturned many of the criminal laws which defined the circumstances under which an insanity plea could be filed by a defendant. 
 
 
It establishes that the insanity must be severe, and made it the responsibility of the defense to prove that there are grounds for the judge to allow an insanity plea instead of the prosecution's responsibility to prove that the defendant is sane.

Should the Insanity Plea Be Abolished?

Should the Insanity Plea Be Abolished?

The criminal court process is faced with determining if it should abolish the insanity plea. Those in favor of abolishing the insanity plea claim that psychiatrists have hijacked the criminal justice system. Furthermore, such opponents of the insanity plea claim that the criminal court process has been corrupted by the ease with which an insanity plea can be made. They claim that the ease with which an insanity plea can be filed means that the criminal court process will soon cease to recognize degrees present in criminality of different acts.
 
 
Opponents of the insanity plea claim that it violates the original process under which juries operated. The early English legal system, specifically that in practice before 1800, recognized only two jury findings: guilty and not guilty. A not guilty verdict meant simply that the prosecution had failed to prove its case. A guilty verdict meant that the jury had determined that the defendant had committed the crime. A guilty finding, however, could recommend a pardon if the jury believed that the defendant was insane.
 
 
The essential aspect of the criminal court process of this time period for opponents of the modern day insanity plea which uses the explanation of insanity to plead not guilty, is that the defendant was found guilty of having committed the crime before any leniency based on the insanity of the perpetrator affected the judgment of the court.
 
 
After 1800 the criminal court process became concerned with the mental status of defendant. This growing concern has led away from "guilty but insane" pleas to the recent "not guilty by reason of insanity" plea. Proponents of judicial conservatism believe that the criminal court process should return to the more narrow construction of insanity.
 
 
Opponents to the abolition of the insanity plea contend that attempting to remove the possibility of an insanity plea from the criminal court process would not only be difficult, it would likely also be met with opposition on grounds of being unconstitutional. The argument that it would be unconstitutional arises from the fact that most laws require the defendant have the mens rea, or element of motive, for the action to be considered criminal. 
 
 
As it currently exists, the criminal court process contains several different levels of culpability based on mental state. The elimination of the insanity plea from the criminal court process would require the complete reevaluation of the criminal court process, as well as the civil court system, which also allows for different levels of liability based on the mental status of the litigants.

Using the Plea of Temporary Insanity

Using the Plea of Temporary Insanity

A claim of temporary insanity in a criminal court case is often related to a defense claiming that the act was a crime of passion. Crimes of passion and temporary insanity defenses are very difficult to prove. Temporary insanity can only be found by evaluating the actions in hindsight.
 
 
Witnesses are essential in a criminal court case that deals with a crime of passion. The tests that are normally used to determine insanity, such as the M'Naghten Test, the Irresistible Impulse Test, and the Durham Test, are all of limited use in such a case as well because the insanity supposedly had such a short duration.
 
 
A defense can only establish that the defendant was suffering from a bout of temporary insanity by comparing the actions the individual engaged in at the time with the actions the individual took both before and after the crime. A defense of temporary insanity was first used successfully in 1859 when a man killed his wife's lover in a fit of rage. 
 
 
Temporary insanity was most likely to have been successfully invoked in a criminal court case in the middle of the 20th Century, but has become less frequently successful since then. Temporary insanity cases are invoked in less than one percent of all violent offenses. A criminal court case in which the defendant attempts to plead not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity results in a not guilty verdict less than one quarter of the time.
 
 
Temporary insanity claims have become less successful due to the tendencies of many juries to see a criminal court case when the defendant invokes the defense as an attempt to escape prosecution. Most juries consider temporary insanity claims as a method to excuse vigilante justice.
 
 
A criminal court case is likely to return a verdict of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity if two circumstances are met. The first is if the defendant has been diagnosed with a confirmed mental disorder, such as schizophrenia. If the schizophrenic is currently on medication which treats the disease, has been vigilant in maintaining compliance with an approved course of treatment, is not likely to repeat the behavior, and currently appears to be sane, it is likely that his or her claim of temporary insanity would be upheld by the jury.
 
 
A criminal court case involving a schizophrenic with a history of medical noncompliance and who appears to continue to pose a threat would likely not be found not guilty due to a bout of temporary insanity. A person with no discernible cause for the actions they undertake may also have his or her claim of temporary insanity supported by jurors.