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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.