Common concepts of the insanity excuse in Anglo-American law:



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Insanity Defense
Common concepts of the insanity excuse in Anglo-American law: (from Moore, PLACING BLAME, pp. 596ff)


  1. Seriously mentally ill person has understanding of a child (assimilates to the infancy excuse)




  1. They are not moral agents because of insufficient grasp of right and wrong




  1. They are delusionally ignorant or mistaken about quality and quantity of acts, or that act is legally or morally forbidden




  1. Their actions are products of their disease (caused by brain lesions, e.g.)




  1. They are irresistibly impelled by their mental disease to perform their criminal acts




  1. They lack substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of criminality or to conform their conduct to the requirements of law




  1. They lack the mens rea or intentional element properly required for conviction of a crime.

Versions of the insanity defense:




  1. M'Naughton Rules: from M'Naughton's Case (10 Cl.2nd F. 200; 1849)

"to establish a defense on the ground of insanity it must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act, the accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as to not know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong."


"[did] the accused at the time of doing the act know the difference between right and wrong."


  1. Durham Rule: from Durham v. U.S. (214 F. 2nd 862; 1954)

"The accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect."


Proposed test: "If you the jury believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused was not suffering from a diseased or defective mental condition at the time he committed the act charged, you may find him guilty. If you believe he was suffering from a diseased or defective mental condition at the time he committed the act and there is a causal connection between the disease or defect and the act, then you must find the accused not guilty by reason of insanity."
"Our collective conscience does not allow punishment where it cannot impose blame." Holloway v. U.S., 1945 (80 U.S. App. D.C. 4)


  1. Model Penal Code (American Law Institute), 1956




  1. A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.

  2. The terms "mental disease or defect" do not include an abnormality manifested only by repeated criminal or antisocial conduct.

The defense under the MPC


Cognitive prong: a person may be excused if his thinking was severely disordered.
Volitional prong - a person may be excused if his ability to control his behavior was severely impaired.
EXAMPLE (from Richard Bonnie, " The Moral Basis of the Insanity Defense" ABA Journal, vol. 69 (Feb. 1983))
Joy Baker 31-yewar old women shot and killed her aunt. She became increasing agitated during the days before the shooting and fearful that her dogs, children, and neighbors were being possessed by the devil. On the day of the shooting, she had a pistol and carried it around. Worried in particular about her children being possessed. Her aunt arrived unexpectedly and was trying to get into the house through the back door when Joy shoot her. Severely wounded, she asked Joy why she had hurt her; Joy replied that she had come to do Joy harm. Then Joy shot her a second time, killing her, explaining later that since the aunt was in pain she wanted to end her suffering. She was acquitted under the MPC rule.
The Hinckley Case:
John Hinckley shot President Reagan and wounded three others with 6 shots at close range from a .22 caliber pistol. He had previously stalked Jodie Foster and President carter. He was judged to have delusions that resulted from psychosis; he was judged to have acted under an irresistible impulse. He was judged not guilty be reason of insanity in 1982 and has been confined since. In November 2003 he will have a hearing to determine whether he should be released.


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