Defense of Insanity: Overly Successful or Overrated?

Posted on Apr 7, 2017 in Blog Entry: Criminal Cases, Blog Entry: Spinning the Law

This is an excerpt from Spinning the Law by Kendall Coffey. The full book is available for purchase on Amazon here.

Even for defendants who are mentally ill, the legal defense of insanity is rarely successful – especially since the laws changed in the wake of the insanity-based acquittal of John Hinkley Jr., President Reagan’s attempted assassin.

Insanity might seem like a really good idea, at least for a defendant caught red-handed in criminal activity. In everyday conversations people are quick to suggest that an otherwise guilty person can get off by claiming insanity or even temporary insanity. Such defendants are crazy, the public speculates, but crazy like a fox.

The legal reality is galaxies apart from this popular wisdom. In criminal prosecutions, a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity is presented in 0.85 percent of cases, less than one in a hundred. Such strategies succeed no more than a fourth of the time. So the odds of an accused criminal beating the rap by wrapping himself in a straightjacket are roughly on in four hundred.

Ironically, even individuals who are clearly mentally ill are not necessarily considered insane for legal purposes. Unless the affliction it’s an extremely narrow definition of what constitutes insanity for legal purposes, mental disease is no defense. Just consider the number of prison inmates who have serious mental disorders. This poses increasing problems for corrections officials who lack the resources to provide them with proper care.

In the past, an insanity defense was more readily available. Things changed in 1981 with the attempted assassination of President Ronal Reagan and the subsequent trial of assailant John Hickley Jr. By any standard, Hinckley was mentally ill. Obsessed with movie star Jodie Foster, he thought killing President Reagan was a great way to get her attention But public uproar greeted his acquittal in 1982 by reason of insanity. Some 83 percent of Americans believed that justice was not done

Neither the public nor the jury usually knows that an acquittal by reason of insanity is not much of a victory. Insane defendants, especially violent ones, spend many years in mental hospitals that are the equivalent of prisons. In fact, Hinkley would spend close to twenty-eight years in a mental facility before being allowed limited visits to his mother’s house.

Some states do not even permit an insanity defense. The US Supreme Court determined in 2006 that Arizona did not violate the Constitution by preventing a defendant from presenting the defense of legal insanity. In That case, a young man, who believed that aliens were out to get him, killed a police office in Phoenix. No one accused the defendant of faking. His mental illness was undeniable. The Supreme Court found that the state could hold him accountable nonetheless, and it allowed the conviction and life sentence to stand.

Texas mother Andrea Yates was likewise impaired when she was tried for the drowning murders of her five children. Not even the prosecutors denied that she was mentally ill. Evidence showed that she believed she had been hearing voices commanding her to save the children from eternal damnation by dispatching them to a better place. Despite abundant evidence of mental illness, in her first trial in 2002 she was found sane and was convicted of the murders.

On appeal, it developed that the state’s expert presented what appeared to be fabricated testimony to the jury. He suggested that Yates had fictionalized the defense of insanity after watching an episode of CSI that gave her the idea she would later use to justify the murders. It turned out, though, that no such episode existed. After an appeals court ordered a new trial, Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2006. She was not, of course, let loose on the streets. Instead she was sent to the North Texas State Hospital, a high-security mental-health facility where she is expected to remain for many years.

Therefore, while the public believes that is too easy to escape guilty by faking insanity it is instead a very difficult defense to establish even for those who are undeniably mentally ill. Perhaps because there is so much misunderstanding in general about mental illness, the defense of insanity is one of the most misperceived of all legal issues in the court of public opinion.

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