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The Insanity of the Temporary Insanity Defense

Essay by   •  February 6, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  2,545 Words (11 Pages)  •  1,776 Views

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"Not Guilty, By reason of Insanity!" These words have stung the ears of many courtroom observers, especially the families and friends of victims whose lives were snuffed out by a so-called 'insane' assailant. While there are indeed many insane people running around the streets today, I feel that many persons who use the temporary insanity defense are more conniving than insane. Also, being an inexact science, the psychiatric community often offers up differing opinions as to any particular individual's sanity. Furthermore, money or lack thereof can play a major role in the success or failure of an insanity defense. The temporary insanity defense should therefore be abolished, especially for felony offenses such as murder.

What exactly is the official court definition of legally insane? Criminal Law and Court Procedures author, Melroy B. Hutnick states that there are three basic rules that are commonly given consideration in deciding an individual's sanity. The first rule, M'Naghten's Rule states:" If at the time of committing the act, the defendant was laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and the quality of the act, but did not know that what he was doing was wrong, he is legally insane and not responsible for his acts. This rule is often referred to as the Right-Wrong Test." The second rule, known as Durham's Rule, states: "An accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect." Last, the Irresistible Impulse Rule states: "If by reason of a mental disease, the accused has so far lost his power to choose between right and wrong that he was unable to avoid doing the act in question, he is insane" (Hutnick 23). What does all of this mean? People can commit crimes yet not be held accountable for those crimes if they are found to be insane.

The insanity defense is not new. As far back as the thirteenth century, jurist Braeton wrote. "For a crime is not committed unless the will to harm be present" (Taylor 96). The insanity defense was originally designed to protect the mentally-impaired who needed treatment in hospitals rather than imprisonment (Koshland 777). This was the humane course to take, one that acknowledged that through no fault of their own, there is a minute percentage of the population that truly has no concept of right and wrong. Unfortunately, men have abused this point of law over the centuries, especially in the last decade, at times making a mockery of it in the criminal courts. They have strayed from the premise that English common law is base on individual responsibility, and that if no one is held accountable for what he does, he will behave properly. Law is meant to control, not explain human nature (Taylor 97). But it seems that explanation of criminal behavior has overshadowed guilt or innocence in many cases today.

George L. Bolen, a New York prosecutor stated, "You get caught, and suddenly you're a victim" (West 58). It indeed seems true that, "...Americans have moved from the self-absorbed Me Generation to the self-absolved Not Me Generation" (Slade 14). The parameters of victimization have expanded to the point that in any given situation most people could make an argument for their being a victim (Margolick 18). The addition of the "irresistible impulse" rule to the penal code back in the 1950's has spawned a vast variety of criminal defenses which attempt to absolve defendants of guilt. These defenses in effect say, 'I did the deed, but because of my circumstance, i was temporarily insane and therefore I shouldn't have to serve time for my misdeed.'

The first successful temporary insanity defense was mounted in 1859 when a New York politician was acquitted of shooting his wife's lover (who, by the way, was the son of Francis Scott Key). The jury saw the defendant as the victim and concluded that Key got what he deserved (Margolick 18). Within the past decade, the temporary insanity defenses attempted have become increasingly creative. Below are listed some of the defenses that have received a great deal of media attention over the past few years. First, 'Roid Rage' is characterized by severe mood swings related to steroid use. This defense lessened the sentence of 19 year-old Troy Gentzler, who admitted throwing rocks at cars on the highway injuring several people. Secondly, 'Black Rage' is defined at racial prejudice-induced insanity. Lawyers for Colin Ferguson, the black man who killed five white people and one Asian-American and wounded nineteen others on a Long Island railroad wanted to use this plea but Ferguson decided to mount his own defense. Next, there's 'Urban Survival Syndrome' which is described as the fear that inner-city black people have of other black people. A Fort Worth jury ended up deadlock in the case of 19 year-old Daimion Osby, a black man who shot two other unarmed black men in a parking lot. The so-called 'Meek-make Syndrome' is the psychological emasculation of the man by his spouse. By using this defense, a man in Los Angeles had the charge of murder reduced to voluntary manslaughter in the death-by-beating (with a wrench) of his wife. His lawyers claimed that she had destroyed his self-esteem by calling him names and forcing him to sleep on the floor. 'Fetal Trimethadione Syndrome', the result of a mother's use of epilepsy medication during pregnancy, was the defense offered by the lawyers of a 14 year-old boy who beat to death another 14 year-old boy. The defense lawyers will cite the teen's uncontrollable "sadistic side" due to his syndrome as the reason behind his actions, The 'Abused Child Syndrome' defense gained a great deal of media attention when it was used by the attorneys for both Lyle and Erik Menendez to explain why they shot their parents to death while they were watching television. The Menendez brothers' trials both resulted in hung juries. Retrials for the brothers are forthcoming (Slade 14). Last, the 'Adopted Child Syndrome' is a theory which that the trauma of adoption can cause some adoptees to become antisocial and homicidal. This theory was developed by Long Island psychotherapist Dr. David Kirschner to explain why a convicted murderer, Joel Rifkin became a serial killer. The jury rejected his insanity plea (McQuiston 8)

All of the above mentioned defenses are variations on the irresistible impulse claim. The words of author John Taylor seem to ring true in today's society. He wrote, "Everyone does pretty much what he or she can get away with and, in one way or another, test the limits, trying to

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