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In this paper, I will argue that the insanity plea is a justified claim and, furthermore, that the insanity plea should continue to be legally allowed in the courtrooms. Insanity pleas arouse controversial debate because select people feel that the claim is unjust. Although people feel that the insanity plea should not be used, that it lets people off for free and is altogether unfair, the courtrooms still institute the insanity plea because it is a necessary, and legitimate claim. This paper will explore the controversial components that go alongside the insanity plea and will argue that the insanity plea is justified in the appropriate situations through varying supporting arguments.


To be insane is to be mentally disordered and exhibiting insanity. Insanity is “unsoundness of mind sufficient in the judgment of a civil court to render a person unfit to maintain a contractual or other legal relationship or to warrant commitment to a mental health facility.” In the terms of the law it is “a degree of mental malfunctioning sufficient to relieve the accused of legal responsibility for the act committed.” To be insane is to not be in complete control of your own thoughts or actions, or unaware of the severity of such. To be guilty is to be “responsible for or chargeable with a reprehensible act; deserving of blame.” (Dictionary) If one is guilty, they have committed some form of act in which they are responsible for, and therefore the one in which to blame. If one is guilty by means of insanity, then it was their mental malfunctioning that caused them responsibility for an act committed.


The term mens rea is quite often used when discussing the insanity plea. Mens rea is the “intention or knowledge of wrong doing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused”. This simply means that the defendant had a guilty state of mind when the act was committed. This must occur at the same time as actus reas which is the “action or conduct that is a constituent element of a crime, as opposed to the mental state of the accused”, or simply, the act of the crime. Therefore, those who are convicted as mentally insane had a lack of mens rea, since they had no guilty state of mind when the act was committed due to lack of knowledge or control over their actions. (Winslade)


The Insanity plea was first brought to the US in 1843 with the case of Daniel M’Naghten. At the time the rule was defined as “to establish a defense of insanity, it must be proved that at the time of committing the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as to not know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing something wrong.” Now, the federal law states that claiming insanity is justified if “at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of he wrongfulness of his acts.” (Collins)


Daniel M’Naghten killed an assistant to a prime minister of England after preplanning the murder. M’Naghten was under the belief that he was being persecuted and truly believed he was acting out of self-defense. Although M’Naghten had thought out and preplanned the attack (something that often strays the jury from accepting an insanity plea), he claimed insanity. After observing M’Naghten, physicians classified him as “insane”. He then spent twenty years in a mental institution until his death. With much disapproval, Queen Victoria had 15 additional judges come to review the case. From there, the M’Naghten Rule was established. This rule, up until the mid 1900s, set the bases on which people were considered to be insane. Since M’Naghten’s trial there has been much effort put into setting cement rules for the pleading of insanity and incorporating legal knowledge into the psychiatric field. (Collins) In about half the states, nowadays, the American Law Institute’s (ALI) test is applied. (Boyd)


Some people view the insanity plea in a totally different light completely. For example, in ancient Roman years, people believed that those who were insane were actually blessed, leading them to be unreachable by jurisdiction. Later on, and even still today, people believed that insanity itself was created just for the mere purpose of allowing people to be excused from their punishment. They believed that the concept of insanity does not truly exist, that is just an inflated version of self-absorption or other form of non-harmful characteristic that people use to escape their own doings. (Insanity Defense)


Some may argue that the insanity plea should not be an option because it could be abused, therefore allowing guilty criminals to get off easily and escape severe punishment. If the insanity plea exists, then many criminals will find a way to escape their sentencing by pretending to be insane. They could trick the jury and the judge into thinking they are insane and therefore relieve themselves from their punishment. This, however, rarely, if ever, occurs.


Only a very small percentage of people actually claim the insanity plea. According to a recent study, the insanity plea was used in less than 1% of the cases reported in represented states. Of this already few amount of cases, only 26% were argued successfully. Due to the thorough psychiatric evaluation processes needed to prove somebody insane, this defense is barely used by people that are not actually suspected of being insane. Though 90% of those who used the defense claim were found to be insane, people that have pleaded the insanity defense have been found sane and guilty, like Jeffrey Dahmer for example, a serial killer who practiced both necrophilia and cannibalism. (Mental Health on Trial) Therefore, if in a rare case somebody did try to fake insanity, they would most likely not be found insane.


The process through which one’s insanity is determined is a long one and varies for each state. Overall, it involves a thorough psychiatric evaluation where psychiatrists take into account the varying degrees of insanity to determine the mental health of the defendant. They examine mental retardation vs. actual insanity as well as trigger signs that prove that the defendant is indeed insane. Additionally, many tests have been instituted and defined to help clearly classify those that are insane, and their reasons for claiming such. (Boyd) The psychiatrists, however, do not decide whether or not the defendant meets the legal test for insanity. Their job is to identify mental issues and psychiatric problems. The jury is the one to ultimately decide if the defendant is legally insane. (Mental Health on Trial)


When a person goes to trial under the insanity claim, they are faced with both a jury and a judge. The jury asks themselves “did the defendant know what he was doing when he committed the crime?” and “did the defendant understand that his actions were wrong?”. (Collins) The jury takes information from both the psychiatrists that are working with the defendant and also from outside evidence when viewing the case. It is the jury’s job to hear all the testimony and from the evidence presented, make the decision on whether or not the defendant is legally sane. (Mental Health on Trial) In some cases, the judge makes the ultimate decision. For example, the judge makes the final decision in deciding competency to stand trial (which will be addressed later on). (Huckabee) However, in insanity cases, people prefer the jury to speak for the people and make the ultimate decision, with the judge monitoring the case.


When examining the insanity plea, it is important to recognize the different classifications that the “insane” may be classified under. You cannot argue for or against the plea without understanding all of the components of it. Nowadays, it is too simple to describe somebody as just “insane”. There are varying severities to the straight insanity defense, providing an alternate form of reviewing the defendant’s case. There are crimes classified under “not guilty by reason of insanity” as well as the crimes more recently classified as “guilty but mentally ill”. “Guilty but mentally ill” is not treated that differently than simply guilty. It means that the defendant has committed the crimes and is found to be mentally ill; however, his or her illness is not great enough to exempt them of their criminal responsibility. (Lithwick) It says that even though they suffered from a mental illness, they are still responsible for their own actions.


Insanity does not always involve a mental illness. One can be considered to be insane if they are administered with an impairing drug involuntarily. This does not include willing drunkenness; one who committed a crime intoxicated could not get off by using the plea for insanity. (Winslade) The majority of cases in which insanity is found are usually caused by paranoid schizophrenia (which causes disillusion among other things in people), which is a mental illness. (Insanity Defense) So while the majority of insanity cases do involve those with a mental disorder, they are not restricted to that. And in reverse, one is not claimed to be insane solely because they have a mental illness.


When considering whether one was insane or not, you must consider whether they were aware of their illness prior to committing the crime. Did this person have prescribed medication that they were taking for their illness? If so, and they had refused to take it, should they be eligible for this plea since they knew they were insane, and had not previously tried to render that fact? This could be compared to that of intoxication. In both instances, the guilty person was in a different state of mind, technically, by choice. Therefore, those that are insane but had refused to take their meds should be reviewed differently, as well as more harshly.


Competency to stand trial and diminished responsibility are two components of the insanity plea involving less severity. Competency to stand trial deals with the defendant’s mental capability at the time of the trial, as opposed to strictly at the time the act was committed. If the defendant does not understand the proceedings that are being held against him, or the nature of the event, then they are unable to stand trial. They are then placed into a mental facility until they are able to function and stand trial. Diminished responsibility involves evidence that reduces the degree of a crime. It says that although the defendant may be guilty, they are less at fault then an ordinary defendant. It’s on the same level of the insanity defense, but a lot less severe. Even the concept of irresistible impulse, where the defendant is not guilty due to an irresistible impulse to commit the crime, falls under the insanity defense. (Huckabee)


Another point to consider is that of mental retardation. While “insanity” is actually classified as a legal term, mental retardation is still classified as a medical term. The fact that these two words have overlapping similarities creates conflict when deciding who is insane and who is not. Mental retardation is classified as someone who scores below 70 on an IQ test. Insanity cannot be tested this way. Insanity is determined after much legal debate and investigation. So while somebody who is insane may also suffer from mental retardation, somebody who is mentally retarded is not necessarily considered to be insane. In fact, it has been shown that mentally retarded people are not usually found to be legally insane. (Lithwick) It also further shows the limited window in which one can plead insanity unless insane, due to the many restrictions on what is considered to be truly insane.


Regardless of varying degrees, whether somebody was insane to the point that they physically had no control over their actions, or were simply unaware of the nature of their actions, they are still classified overall as insane to a certain degree. Somebody that is in these states of mind should not be viewed in the same way as somebody who had complete control over their minds, and their actions. However, the varying degrees help us to distinguish who is deserving of the insanity plea itself, and then uses this information to sentence accordingly. The insanity plea most usually requires that the person who committed the crime be in a state of psychosis at the time of committing this crime. This means that their mental state prevented them from rational thought or perception. (Insanity Defense) Therefore, allowing one to claim that insanity was indeed present and in return getting the appropriate mental help, seems only just.


Because those that are reported insane receive mental help, they are not getting off free, but instead locked up in an institution rather than in a jail cell. Some have even claimed that these institutions as less desirable than jail itself. Therefore, if one were to somehow successfully fake an insanity plea, they would not be escaping punishment. Though different states look at the insanity plea differently (Montana, Idaho and Utah have rid of the insanity defense entirely), the majority of those found to be guilty by reasons of insanity must go to psychiatric therapy until proven no longer insane, hence bringing themselves a punishment of their own. After a period of time the person may request a trial to try and prove that they are now “sane” and should be released. (Insanity Defense FAQs)


People that are considered to be insane should not be dealt with in the same way as those who truly are guilty, not only because they are not fully liable for their actions, but also because they could not, and should not have to, handle the same retribution. If you were to send an insane person to prison with everyone else, you would be putting him or her in danger. It would most likely increase the instability of their mental state and cause them to either cause more harm to others, or to themselves. By placing them into the proper institution they are receiving the help they need, still being removed from the streets and in a way, serving their time. However, many people believe that suffering through sometimes only a few years in a mental institution isn’t punishment enough.


Once the insane are released and labeled sane, it seems fair that they should then have to undergo some other form of just additional punishment. Before the 1970’s the punishments were stricter. Though they were subject to years in a mental institution with no further punishments, their stays in the institutions lasted a lot longer, usually even for their lifetime. (Collins) So now we ask, why should somebody who has been convicted be sentenced merely a few years in a mental institution while others are suffering through lifetimes of punishment for committing the same crime?


As said, if one is insane, then they didn’t have total control over the actions they were taking. Once they are released from the mental facility, they are considered to be safe and of no harm to the public. (Insanity Defense FAQs) Nevertheless, regardless of their former state, if they committed a crime they should be responsible for undergoing some further form of punishment. Representative Gary Cates of Ohio is working alongside others to allow a combination of prison time and mental health treatments for certain defendants. Some states, including Indiana and Kentucky, already have laws of this sort for the guilty but mentally ill defendants. (Morse)


Punishment for these crimes should be less drastic then that of regular convicts, however. If the person is now classified as sane, then these punishments should seem only just. What we must keep in mind though, is that only 30-40% of cases involving the insanity plea were for murder, therefore leaving their severity to not require a detrimental amount of punishment. (Insanity Defense FAQs) Either way, though further punishment of some form should be instituted, it should still be less then that of who were sane while committing their crimes. Because the isnane didn’t have full control over the crimes they were committing, they should continue to be treated differently as they were when they were sentenced in the first place. So, although they should be forced to suffer through some additional punishment, it should still be less then a normal criminal. The fact that they are insane should continue to play a role in their punishment, therefore lessening what they should be forced to do post their initial institutionalization.


Varying degrees of punishment do exist for varying forms of insanity, however, and the guilty but mentally ill do have to serve time. The guilty but mentally ill claim makes the defendant serve the full sentence before they can be released, unlike the guilty by reason of insanity plea sentencing that was just discussed. (Huckabee) These people are given a prison sentence, rather than just receiving appropriate medical care. Though both are treated for their mental disorders, their release varies on different conditions. (Boyd)


Temporary insanity is another exception to the punishment. If you claim to be temporarily insane, that means that you were insane while committing the crime, but are now sane. The people that successfully claim this form of insanity are released without any form of treatment or jail-time. This plea, however, is rarely successfully used. (Insanity Defense) So although the guilty but mentally ill have to serve time, some are still left thinking that everyone guilty of committing a crime should have to serve some sort of punishment as well.


In the case of Ralph Tortorici, his family felt that he was very sick and deserved psychiatric treatment rather than a prison sentence. Ralph suffered from schizophrenia. He believed that the government had implanted a microchip, tracking device in his body. After asking to have it removed and getting no response, he held a classroom full of students hostage hoping to in turn speak with the president and Supreme Court. Ralph was sentenced to 20-47 years in prison where he soon hung himself. (Insanity Defense FAQs) Had he received mental care rather than a prison sentence, he would have been treated and its unlikely he would have wound up dead.


The strongest claim against the insanity plea would be that guilty is guilty no matter what. Everybody, no matter what state they are in, is equally guilty for the crimes they commit and should be treated accordingly. There should be no exceptions made when dealing with the law. By making exceptions in the law you are opening more doors for truly guilty people to get off easy because they found a loophole through one of these excuses. In the case of Ralph Tororici, Assistant District Attorney Cheryl Coleman said that “despite Ralph Tortorici’s mental illness, he’s completely, morally and legally responsible”. (Insanity Defense FAQs) By saying that guilty is guilty no matter what, however, you are disregarding the exceptions that the court already makes.


Many other factors are taken when considering one’s sentencing. Age is one of these factors. If somebody is under 18, then they are considered to be a minor. In the majority of cases, minors are treated separately then adults; they are given less harsh punishments. If the person is a minor, then they are not as responsible as an adult. There is also that of self-defense. If somebody committed their crime while in the act of defending themselves, then they are also treated differently. Often, in cases of self-defense they are simply let off with no punishment at all. If these reasons are considered justified claims, then why is pleading insanity any different? If anything, a younger child has more control over their actions than somebody that is insane and in no control over their state of mind whatsoever.


Insanity pleas are a justified claim and should be legally allowed in the courtroom. Those that are insane were either fully unaware of the consequences of, or had no physical control over, their actions. Because insanity pleas are rarely faked, they are not alone in the lessening possibilities of one’s sentencing, and because it provides the insane with the help they need, the insanity plea seems only fair. The varying degrees of classifying “insanity”, and components to consider when doing so, help to distinguish who is really deserving of the full insanity plea. Though some may say that the insane are just as much to blame as the sane, this isn’t a reasonable claim. If somebody is legally insane, they should be treated as such and generally excused of their wrong doings. Therefore, the insanity plea is necessary in providing everybody with their appropriate sentencing.



1. “Mental Health on Trial- Legal Issues in Mental Health”. CSI Spotlight. 06 2002. Counseling Services Inc. < www.counselingservices.org/past%20spotlights/May2002spotlight.htm >


2. Winslade, William J. The Insanity Plea. New York: Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data, 1983


3. Huckabee, Harlow M. Mental Disability Issues in the Criminal Justice System. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C Thomas Burblisher, Ltd, 2000


4. Collins, Kimberly. Hinkebein, Gabe. Schorgl, Staci. “Evolution of the Insanity Plea.” <http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/hinckley/hinckleyinsanity.htm>


5. Insanity Defense. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insanity_defense>


6. Morse, Janice. “Insanity plea sits uneasily with some”. 11 2003. Cincinnati Enquirer. <http://www.enquirer.com/editions/2003/11/23/loc_insanity23.html>


7. Boyd, Mary Ann. Psychiatric Nursing: Contemporary Practice. Lippincot Williams and Wilkins, 2005.


8. “Insanity Defense FAQs”. Frontline. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/crime/trial/faqs.html>


9. < www.dictionary.com >


10. Lithwick, Dahlia. “Does the law treat the insane differently then the retarded?”. 06 2001. <http://slate.com/id/1007908/>

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