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Attacks on the Insanity Defense

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The insanity defense refers to that branch of the concept of insanity which defines the extent to which men accused of crimes may be relieved of criminal

responsibility by virtue of mental disease. The terms of such a defense are to be found in the instructions presented by the trial judge to the jury at the close of a

case. These instructions can be drawn from any of several rules used in the determination of mental illness. The final determination of mental illness rests solely on the

jury who uses information drawn from the testimony of \"expert\" witnesses, usually professionals in the field of psychology. The net result of such a determination

places an individual accordingly, be it placement in a mental facility, incarceration, or outright release. Due to these aforementioned factors, there are several

problems raised by the existence of the insanity defense. Problems such as the actual possibility of determining mental illness, justifiable placement of judged

\"mentally ill\" offenders, and the overall usefulness of such a defense. In all, I believe that these problems, as well as others which will be mentioned later, lead us to

the conclusion that the insanity defense is useless and should be abolished entirely.

Insanity is a legal, not a medical definition. Therefore, mental illness and insanity are not synonymous: only some mental illness constitutes insanity. Insanity, however,

includes not only mental illness but also mental deficiencies. Due to this, there are problems in exactly how to apply a medical theory to a legal matter (Herman,

1983;128). The legal concepts of mental illness and insanity raise questions in a conflict between what are termed legalistic criminology and scientific criminology:

mens rea, punishment v. treatment, responsibility, and prisons v. hospitals. This debate seesaws to and fro amidst a grey area between law and science. The major

difficulty with a theory such as mental illness is that it is just that, a theory. To scientists theories are a way of life, but applied to the concept of law theories become

somewhat dangerous. By applying a loose theory such as mental illness to law we are in essence throwing the proverbial \"monkey wrench\" into the wheels of justice.


At the center of the legal use of insanity lies the mens rea. Every crime involves a physical act, or actus reus, and a mental act, or mens rea, the non-physical cause

of behavior. The mens rea is the mental element required for a crime, and if absent excuses the defendant from criminal responsibility and punishment (Jeffery,

1985;49). The difficulty here lies in analyzing the mens rea. In order to do this lawyers apply one of several rules used by psychologists. These rules range from the

Irresistible Impulse Test to the M\'Naghten Rule. Each of these rules approach mental illness/capacity in a different way and in my opinion each falls short of actual

proof. I will discuss each in detail.

The M\'Naghten Rule The M\'Naghten Rule, also known as the right-wrong test, arose in 1843 during the trial of Daniel M\'Naghten who argued that he was not

criminally responsible for his actions because he suffered from delusions at the time of the killing. The M\'Naghten Rule reads: A defendant may be excused from

criminal responsibility if at the time of the commission of the act the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from a disease of the mind, as not to

know the nature and the quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know that he was doing what was wrong. Thus, according to the rule, a

person is basically insane if he or she is unable to distinguish between right and wrong as a result of some mental disability.

Criticism of the M\'Naghten Rule has come from both legal and medical professions. Many criticize that the test is unsound in its view of human psychology.

Psychiatry, it is argued, views the human personality as an integrated entity, not divisible into separate compartments of reason, emotion, or volition (Herman,

1983;138). Additionally, the test is criticized for defining responsibility solely in terms of cognition. While cognitive symptoms may reveal disorder, they alone are

not sufficient to give an adequate picture of such a disorder or determine responsibility. Also, it has been shown that individuals deemed insane by psychologists

have possessed the ability to differentiate right from wrong. I believe that the major weakness of this test, however, lies in the fact that courts are unable to make

clear determinations of terms such as disease of the mind, know, and the nature and quality of the act.

The Irresistible Impulse Test This rule excludes from criminal responsibility a person whose mental disease makes it impossible to control personal conduct. Unlike

the M\'Naghten Rule, the criminal may be able to distinguish between right and wrong, but may be unable to exercise self-control because of a disabling mental

condition. Normally this test is combined with the M\'Naghten Rule. Many of the criticisms of the Irresistible Impulse Test center around the claim that the view of

volition is so extremely narrow that it can be misleading. Just as the M\'Naghten Rule focused on cognition rather than the function of the person in an integrated

fashion, the Irresistible Impulse Test abstracts the element of volition in a way that fails to assess a person\'s function in terms of an integrated personality.

Additionally, it has been asserted that the concept at best has medical significance in only minor crimes resulting from obsession-compulsion, and that seldom, if

ever, can it be shown that this disorder results in the commission of a major crime (Seigel 1993;144). Such a claim is subject to the objection that it cannot be

conclusively proven. Interestingly, it has been shown by many psychiatric authorities that no homicidal or suicidal crime ever results from obsession-compulsion


Another criticism of this test is the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of proving the irresistibility of the impulse, which the definition of the test requires. The jury, as I

said earlier, has the final decision, and is faced with deciding when the impulse was irresistible and when it was merely unresisted,



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