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In this paper, I will argue that the insanity plea is a justified claim. Furthermore, that the insanity plea should continue to be legally allowed in the courtrooms. Often in court cases, people are wrongly accused or falsely convicted. Though insanity pleas are rare, these controversial debates are frequently a result of a plea of insanity. Because this is debated subject that many people are opposed to, it is important that those that are opposed to the insanity plea see why it is a justified claim. This paper will explore the controversial components that come along with 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.” 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.


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 basically 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.


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.”


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. Although M’Naghten had thought out and preplanned the attack, he claimed insanity. After observing M’Naghten, physicians classified him as “insane”. 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.


When a person goes to trial under the insanity claim, they are faced with both a jury and a judge (both play a role in determining the outcome of their case). The Jury asks themselves “did the defendant know what he was doing when he committed the crime?” and “did the defendant understand that this actions were wrong?”. The jury takes information from both the psychiatrists that are working with the defendant and also from outside evidence when viewing the case. (EXPAND)


The process through which one’s insanity is determined is a long one. Psychiatrics take into account the varying degrees of insanity. They examine mental retardation vs. actual insanity (as earlier mentioned) as well as trigger signs that prove that the defendant is indeed insane. (EXPAND) Additionally, many tests have been instituted and defined o help clearly classify those that are insane, and their reasons for claiming such.


When examining the insanity plea, it is important to recognize the different classifications that things 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”. Now, 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 newly classified as “guilty but mentally ill”. “Guilty but mentally ill” is not treated that differently then 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. (slate) 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 drunkenness; one who committed a crime drunk could not get off by using the plea for insanity. Most cases in which insanity is found are usually caused by paranoid schizophrenia. (EXPAND)


Competency to stand trial and diminished responsibility are two components of the insanity plea of lesser severity. (EXPAND) 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.


Another point to consider is that of 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. (slate) This information must be taken into account when determining whether or not the defendant is guilty on his or her own accords. 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 body. 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. Therefore, allowing one to claim that insanity was indeed present and in return getting the appropriate mental help, seems only just.


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 can trick the jury and the judge into thinking they are insane and be released 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. In these cases, only 26% were argued successfully. Therefore, due to the long, thorough psychiatric evaluation processes needed to prove somebody insane, this defense is barely used by people that are not actually suspected of being insane.


Additionally, those that are reported insane suffer their own form of punishment, they are not getting off free. 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 simply go to psychiatric therapy until proven no longer insane, hence bringing themselves a punishment of their own. After a period the time the person may request a trial to try and prove that they are now “sane”.


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 one of these insane people to prison with everyone else, you would be putting them 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 hospital 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 only to years in a mental institutions with no further punishments, their stays in the institutions lasted a lot longer, usually even for their lifetime. 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?


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. However, regardless of their former state, if they committed a crime they should be responsible for undergoing some further form of punishment. Punishment for these crimes should be less drastic then that of regular convicts, and could be community service or a few years in jail. 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 service. 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 they 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, as mentioned earlier in the paper. For example, 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 without appropriate treatment; a completely different punishment from that of not guilty by reason of insanity. ( ) 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. (wikipedia)


Take the case of Ralphy Tororici. His family felt that he was very sick and who deserved psychiatric treatment rather than a prison sentence. (EXPAND)


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 keyhole 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”. By saying that guilty is guilty no matter what, however, you are discarding the exceptions that the court already makes.


Many other factors are taken in 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 not 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, I believe that a younger child has more control over their actions then somebody that is insane and in no control over their state of mind whatsoever.


Some people view the insanity plea in a totally different light completely. For example, in the ancient Rome years, people believed that those who were insane were actually blessed, leading them to be unreachable by jurisdiction. Later on, and even still nowadays, 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. (EXPAND) (wikipedia)


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? (EXPAND)

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