Term Paper Example on Insanity Defense

Date:  2021-04-05 04:11:54
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George Washington University
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In the judicial system, for a person to be convicted of a crime, the prosecution has to prove two things: the accused person was involved in a guilty act (actus reus), and also that he or she performed the criminal act, intentionally (Bevans, 2014). If the prosecution fails to prove that the accused performed the act, that the court should pass a guilty judgment, or also to show that there was malicious intent when performing the act; then in most cases, it may be assumed that there was no act of crime that was committed by the accused.

There have been incidences whereby; in the court, the prosecution was able to determine that a person committed a certain act, and his or her intentions were to perform that act (Bulten, Nijman, & van der Staak, 2009). However, it is also proven that although he or she is guilty, he or she was suffering from a mental or physical condition that impaired his ability to realize that he or she was engaging in a criminal offense, or he or she was unable to control his or her behavior. In such cases, the insanity defense is used in court.

The insanity defense is a legal doctrine whereby; the moral principle that is found in most of the communities is applied; it ensures that individuals are not punished for criminal acts if they cannot be proven to be rational thinkers. A rational thinker needs to appreciate that a certain action that he or she committed was wrong; there are consequences for certain actions, and the inability to control certain forms of behavior (Bulten, Nijman, & van der Staak, 2009). For instance, if a person who has developmental abilities (and it has been proven by mental experts) decides to set fire to a house because; in his view flames are beautiful cannot be charged with arson. The reason for this is that; he does not realize that he committed a wrongful act that has consequences. Also, some people commit criminal acts when they are asleep (sleep walking), they cannot be found guilty of their criminal activities because they are not aware of their criminal actions (they are not conscious when they are committing these acts).

The legal requirements that pertain to insanity defense have varied over the years in different judicial systems where this form of legal defense is allowed to exist. In the United States, public outrage has been the focal point that has been used to ensure changes are made on the legal requirements for an insanity defense and to limit its success in a court of law. For instance, in the 1980s, the American Law standard for insanity defense was the Penal Code standard (Bonnie, Jeffries, & Low, 2008). A defendant was acquitted by insanity if he committed a criminal act, but lacked the substantial capacity to realize his actions because; he had previously suffered from a mental disease. However, after the failed assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, a stricter federal standard was introduced to limit the number of people who use an insanity defense against the crimes that they have committed (Bonnie, Jeffries, & Low, 2008).

It has been ascertained that depending on the jurisdiction of the case, courts can use one or a combination of the following tests to test for legal insanity. In the MNaghten Rule, there is the need to establish that the defendant did not understand what he did or could not understand that his actions were either right or wrong, because of mental health issues(Hirstein & Sifferd, 2011). There is also the Irresistible Impulse test whereby; because of a mental disease, the defendant was unable to control his impulses, and it led him to perform a criminal act. The Durham Rule establishes that regardless of the clinical diagnosis of the defendant, his mental issues resulted in the person to be engaged in criminal activities. There is also, the Model Penal Code Test for Legal Insanity. In this test, a person is found to be legally insane, and therefore fit to use the legal insanity defense if a mental defect has previously diagnosed him, the defendant was unable to comprehend the criminality of his actions, or act within the confines of the law.

There are also a few states in the USA that do not allow the use of insanity defense against various criminal charges. These states include Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Utah. Apart from Kansas, the other three states allow for a guilty but insane verdict, and therefore, a guilty person is taken to a mental institution for confinement purposes (Bulten, Nijman, & van der Staak, 2009). In the US, most states use the MNaghten Rule or the Model Penal Code as court tests for legal insanity; only New Hampshire uses the Durham standard as a court test for legal insanity.

Thesis Statement: The public perceptions on insanity defense that are normally brought about by misconceptions in regards to its prevalence and how it is applied in the judicial system, may in future lead to some form of a delegitimized American legal system.

Purpose of Insanity Defense

Criminal law is primarily used to establish social control. It is used to define conducts that undermine or destroy the community values. Criminal law is also fundamental to the society because it seeks to protect the lives, liberty, dignity and property of the members of the community. This is achieved by denying freedom to various members of the society who are willing to violate the criminal laws that have been set (Kennedy, 2016). There are different forms of punishment such as issuing a prison term, or any other form of punishment that the court feels is justified given the crime that was committed.

It is important to note that criminal law was formed to be followed by people who can choose to follow the law. In this case, if an individual can choose between right and wrong, and he or she chooses to do a wrong action, then he or she will be punished in accordance with the criminal law (Christopher & Christopher, 2012). However, there are a few people who cannot be held accountable for their actions even if they have committed criminal activities because they suffer from mental diseases or various forms of disabilities have deprived them the ability to make rational choices. The severity of a crime is normally measured by the accused intent at the time of the crime.

It is often assumed that an insane person lacks the intent to perform a criminal activity because he either does not know the consequences of his or her actions or cannot control himself or herself from the actions committed. In such cases, sending the accused to prison as a measure of punishment will most likely not deter him or her from conducting antisocial behaviors or activities in future (Cline, 2016). Instead, they should be provided with special treatment to assist them with their mental issues. In such cases, insanity defense can be applied because even though it can be proven in the court of law that a crime was committed, the accused cannot be held accountable for the crime that was committed.

Background of Insanity Defense

The defense by insanity concept has been in use as part of the legal codes as far back in history as during the ancient Greece and Rome periods. However, during these periods, it was not used as a primary argument by the defendant to be found as not guilty for a certain criminal activity. Instead, it was normally used by the defendant to receive a pardon or mitigate a sentence. 1843 marked the year when the first uniform insanity rule was developed.

In 1843, there was an assassination attempt on the then British Prime Minister Robert Peel by Daniel MNaghten. It was proven in court that MNaghten believing that he was being persecuted, planned and killed an assistant to the prime minister. However, the defense pleaded insanity at the trial (Lee, 2013). The prosecution countered the plea by making an attempt to prove sanity by showing the court that MNaghten had planned and executed the attack. During the trial, several physicians testified that the accused was insane, even though they had never examined him. Their conclusions were based on what they had heard during the trial and making observations on the accuseds behavior. The judge made his ruling by taking into consideration the opinions that had been provided by the physicians and declared the accused was insane, therefore he was not guilty of murder. Queen Victoria and the House of Lords were opposed to the verdict, and it led to fifteen judges from the common law courts being called by the Queen and the House of Lords, to answer questions in regards to the law of insanity as had been applied on MNaghten (White, 2017). Based on their responses a test was formulated to assess whether a person is insane, and it is commonly referred to as the MNaghten Rule.

The MNaghten Rule was used in the USA from the mid-1800s until 1962. In 1851, it was adopted in the federal court system and most of the state courts in the country. The test was normally referred to as the right-wrong test, and it was determined that a person was not criminally responsible for a crime, if at the time of the crime, he was not aware of the nature of the act, or he or she did not know that it was wrong. The jury was supposed to answer two questions to be certain that an individual was either insane or not; these questions are:

1. Did the defendant know what he was doing when committed the crime?

2. Did the defendant understand that his actions were wrong?

It was necessary for the jury to answer these questions because; before the 19th century, medical testimony was rarely used in an insanity trial. The only evidence that was provided in court about insanity was a statement by the defense counsel. In case a physician was present in the court, he only provided a generic list of the behaviors likely to be exhibited by a mentally ill individual. However, the physician did not examine the defendant and provide a report showing whether the defendant was insane or not. The reason for this was during that time; the medical profession had little knowledge about the mental disease and even believed that the condition was incurable.

In the 19th Century, the psychiatric field began to advance, and there were new theories that began to be developed about the cause of insanity and treatment measures that could be undertaken. As medical professional began to understand mental illness, it became clear that the MNaghten Rule had flaws and it needed to be revised (White, 2017). They began making proposals that the law should only acquit a person because he did not know that his actions were wrong, but an individual can also be acquitted if he is unable to prevent himself from committing a criminal offense. The reason behind this proposal was that mental disease could force a person to act against his will because of an irresistible impulse. Therefore the Irresistible Impulse test was formulated as an alternative to MNaghten. However, it was soon determined that even this test had its flaws as it was determined that although all people have impulses, some of which are hard to control, the society demands that people should resist them or be ready to face the consequences of their actions. Also, it is difficult to measure and show that various impulses cannot be resisted as compared to others.

The Durham test was formulated in 1954 in the case of Durham v. the United States. The test was meant to prove that a person was not criminally responsible for his or her actions if the unlawful action is a direct result of his or her mental health issues. Using this test, the jury of the case was required to answer the following tests:

1. Did the defendant have a mental disease or defect?

2. If so, was the disease or defect the reason for the unlawful act?

In this case, both of the answers had to be yes for the defendant to be determ...

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