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The Insanity Defense Used in Criminal Cases

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The insanity defense was first used by U.S. Congressman Daniel Sickles of New York in 1859 after he had killed his wife 's lover, Philip Barton Key

The insanity defense asserts that a criminal defendant should not be found guilty due to the defendant 's “insanity,” but insanity in this context refers to a very specific dysfunction. The theory behind the defense is that a person who is insane lacks the intent required to perform a criminal act because the person either does not know that the act is wrong or cannot control his or her actions even when the person understands that the act is wrong. The insanity defense can in three ways: the insanity plea is rejected.

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Insanity in general exculpates a person’s behaviour when the person is mentally defective or challenged at the time of the crime and such defect played a vital role in affecting the person’s judgment as a manifestation of his lack of intelligence and voluntariness. It may constitute as a mitigating or an exempting circumstance from criminal liability anchored on the latin maxim “actus non facit reum nisi mens rea (a crime is not committed if the mind of the person performing to act complained be innocent). As a complete defense, the accused is exculpated from punishment based on the complete absence of voluntariness, intelligence which necessarily negates intent or negligence on the part of the accused. The defense of insanity veers away from the concept of intent and negligence as it was originally conceptualized to be a product of nature or as a result of a freak accident without human intervention. However, with the progress of society more and more problems are introduced

For one, substance abuse continues to rise and seen to be the cause of societal problems. One of which is the rise in the numbers of crimes committed under the influence of illegal drugs which alters or exacerbates mental disorders. Such continuous substance abuse has been demonstrated to result in the strange behaviour of the person intoxicated with it. Long and continuous abuse has already been proven to cause mental breakdown which is tantamount to insanity. With this, the original concept of insanity of being a product of a freak accident of nature is no longer automatically true. Insanity can now be self-induced – a product of human intervention. Hence, the intent or negligence should not be deemed absent if crimes are committed although the accused can be considered as legally insane. The growing concern over the use of illegal drugs is manifested by the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972 which heavily penalizes substance abuse because of its correlation with the rise in the number of crimes. This was further amended in the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 to answer the inadequacy of the former legislation. If the accused could successfully invoke the defense of insanity then there would be the negation of the intent of the said laws. As of the present the safety valve the Philippines relies on is the stringent criteria for insanity to fall under the category of exempting circumstance which in its nomenclature requires a “complete deprivation” of intelligence in committing the criminal act. The proposal would present the possible shortcomings of this stance, the overlooked violations of this stance to the rights of the accused and the recommendations on how to resolve this problem.

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The weaknesses of this research are the limited number of states and cases analyzed. The conclusion could be more definitive if more states were researched or if districts court cases could be analyzed for a few states representing M’Naghten, American Legal Institute and those who have abolished insanity as an affirmative defense

As was pointed out in Psychology and the Legal System, “Few individual states keep complete records on the use of the insanity defense and its relative success” (Wrightsman and al. 2002) and because this is the case, it would take several years to look at all of the states and several cases to see if all this debate on what test of insanity works and if it make a difference at all. This case goes to the same issue as the case in Idaho, as to whether or not the defendant would have had a different outcome if the state had allowed insanity as a defense, but as is often the case where mental illness plays a role in a crime, the defendant could have been sentenced to civil commitment before serving his or her sentence in prison. Also if “considering a defendant’s insanity only for the purpose of reducing the degree of the crime or determining the punishment for the crime qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of due process” (Stimpson 1994), then what is stop a defendant from saying EED is cruel and unusual punishment because while the person may not be insane, they are still suffering from a mental illness? Montana does have a provision that a defendant’s possible mental illness will be evaluated and the evaluation must also include a recommendation as to the care, custody, and treatment needs of the defendant, so if the evaluator feels that the defendant should be civilly committed for treatment then what is the difference from someone found NGRI and civilly committed?

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In brief, I do not believe that abolition of the insanity defense would eliminate some of the worst problems we experience in the operation of the defense. Even if we restrict the mentally ill to trying to negate mens rea, we still must allow testimony about criminal defendants' mental processes. Testimony by the defendant may still be deceptive. Testimony by psychiatrists would still be relevant and would still pose many of the same problems of role and control that we face under the insanity defense. Mens rea defenses would still leave us in the position of drawing lines between responsibility and exoneration that are equally fuzzy, but even more significant in their consequences

And abolishing the insanity defense would not relieve our lack of financial resources, whether for trial or for treatment.

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Stimpson, S.C. State v. Cowan: The Consequences of Montana’s Abolition of the Insanity Defense. Montana Law Review. 55 Mont. L. Rev. 503

Table 35. The defense of insanity: standards and procedures. (2004). Retrieved March 24, 2010, from

Wrightsman, L., Greene, E., Nietzel, M., & Fortune, W. (2002). Psychology and the Legal System (5th ed.). Wadsworth.

Rosen, M. Insanity Denied: Abolition of the Insanity Defense in Kansas. Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy. 8-WTR Kan. J.L & Pub. Pol’y 253

Shannon, B.D. The Time is Right to Revise the Texas Insanity Defense: An Essay. Texas Tech Law Review. 39 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 67

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