The insanity plea should be eliminated for assisting criminals get away with murder as well as other serious felonies. Clever defendants have abused the very essence of the plea, thereby securing refuge from criminal punishment. Problems associated with the use of this plea include: difficulties in determining mental illness, differing opinions from psychiatrists concerning the sanity of the same subject, use of money to compromise psychiatrist’s conclusion in favor of the defendant, long time involved in the examination of one subject by psychiatrists thereby resulting to a delayed justice, artificial and crazy behavior by the subject during examination so as to influence the outcome of the examination, lack of scientific as well as an in-depth brain test to diagnose the patient, high cost when a forensic psychologist is involved, and lack of a trustworthy criteria for discharging such subjects from hospital.
Insanity defense is a strategy applied in law courts by mentally ill defendants to avoid being punished for crimes they committed on the assumption that they were incapable of distinguishing right from wrong at the time the crime was committed. They choose to do this so that instead of being granted jail term, they are given a psychiatric treatment. This concept dates back to the twelfth century although it has undergone some evolution. The original version of the plea didn’t intend to have the defendant found no guilty on the bases of inability to distinguish wrong from right but intended to have the defendant awarded a pardon or a way of mitigating the sentence. Its only in the nineteenth century that the argument of having the defendant acquitted on this basis arose. This paper will discuss the risks that come with the use of the plea and why it should be abolished. This plea has been widely abused by criminals to procure acquittal and that’s why its of interest to me.
The research seeks to identify the risks involved in the use of the insanity plea in the judicial system.
To achieve the desired research objectives, both primary and secondary sources of information were made use of. The primary sources included questionnaires given to professionals in the legal fraternity quite conversant with the concept and historians who are well versed with the genesis of the concept. The secondary source of information was basically library research targeting books and articles touching on the subject.
Continued use of this plea is the surest way to make the world itself insane and unpredictable. Imagine a suicide bomber who is caught on the verge of detonating the bomb and when taken to court, invokes this plea to procure acquittal (Pasewark 100). One major problem with insanity plea is the difficult involved in determining mental illness. What the proponents of this concept fail to realize is that, there is a big difference between insanity and mental illness (Pasewark 101). As a matter of fact, only some few mental illness constitute insanity. Insanity on the other hand is comprised of not only mental illnesses, but mental deficiencies as well. The two words are actually used in different disciplines of knowledge and it would therefore be wrong to equate them. Insanity is used in the legal arena and is therefore not a medical word. Problems therefore arise as experts try to apply a medical theory to a legal matter (Pasewark 104).
Differing opinions from the psychiatric community as far as the sanity of one individual is concerned further subjects the concept to gross abuses (Manchester 112). Furthermore, the world is slowly giving in to corruption as a way of life and therefore the psychiatrists can be compromised to say that the defendant is insane. Money or lack of it can therefore play a very crucial role in the success or failure of an insanity defense. The determination of insanity is the preserve of court psychiatrists (Manchester 115). It’s important to realize that this determination can take dozens of sessions and even fail to come to a solid end as far as the mental condition of the defendant is concerned. This therefore ends up having a serious impact on the trial as well as its outcome. This results to big files of undecided cases and this waters down the credibility of the judicial system (Manchester 116). The determination largely involves behavior study. A defendant equipped with this knowledge can decide to behave artificially so as to influence the outcome of the examination. This compromises the accuracy of the examination . No body puts the accuracy issue in a better word frame than Thomas Sowell in his book titled Insanity defense published in the year 1994, “ psychiatrists and psychologists are often put in the same position as economists who are asked to predict things that no one is capable of predicting. Those with the honesty and realism to say they can’t do it are likely to be brushed aside…” (Sowell 10).
Psychiatrists also have a tendency of identifying with people in their social as well as economic class (Fass 125) . This is the lot they are likely to describe better. If the case is involving a defendant in a different social and economic class as the psychiatrist, then the psychiatrist is very likely to be oblivious of the defendant’s problems. This means that the jury handling the case would base its verdict on a poorly researched conclusion. Sowell, 1984 gives a case that illustrates this behavior of psychiatrists. A forensic psychologist is quoted as saying “ I hate to say this, but I don’t like to work with poor people……..They are talking about stuff that doesn’t interest me” ( Sowell 325). The fact that psychiatrists are also not required by the court to accompany their conclusion with some scientific backing makes the concept vulnerable to even more abuses. They do not even carry out an in-depth brain test to diagnose the patient. Psychiatrists arrive at their verdict via mere observance of the subject and then deciding based on their beliefs (Fass 126).
If the case requires the services of forensic psychologists who are paid professionals, then accessibility problems set in especially if the defendant cannot afford the charges required (Fass 127).
The concept is clearly a loophole used by defendants who conspire with rogue psychiatrists to get away with felonies and murder (Bonnie 85). A case in point that clearly illustrates this is the acquittal of the gentleman who attempted to assassinate President Rogan Reagan. This attempt was carried out in the full glare of the public and was captured in cameras. Hinckley earned an acquittal despite the evidence connecting him with the felony (Bonnie 87). This attempt brought up unprecedented public outcry. Psychiatrists involved in the case concluded that he made the attempt in an effort to impress Jodie Foster, an actress he had become obsessed with. The decision of the psychiatrists was based on observance as well as the upbringing of the suspect as opposed to scientific proves which would be more accurate and reliable (Bonnie 88). The fact that somebody for instance , masturbated for several years as an adolescence cannot be used to justify a felony of this degree.
After a person is awarded acquittal courtesy of this plea, the law requires that such a person is taken to a mental institution where he/she is supposed to stay until a doctor proves that the person is no longer dangerous and therefore can coexist with others in the society (Manchester 121). A lawyer is also required to accent to this. The procedure of determining this is as untrustworthy and compromised as that of determining the insanity itself. For instance, Sowell, 1994 gives a case of one man by the name Kemper, E . E who earned acquittal after murdering his grant parents. This acquittal was based on the insanity plea. This man was therefore send to an hospital in accordance with the law. He spend about five years in the hospital after which he was dismissed after convincing psychiatrists and the judge that he was now cured and could coexist with others in the society. He did this by giving rational answers to the psychological test he was subjected to. Three years later, he found himself behind bars again for killing eight women one of them being his mother. This casts a lot of doubt on the criteria used to discharge such subjects from hospital. This plea should therefore be abolished in favor of the “ guilty but mentally ill “ concept. In this case, the defendant would first be taken to hospital for psychotherapy and then once he/she is mentally fit, serve the remainder of the sentence in jail (Sowell 20) .
The paper has discussed the reasons as to why insanity plea should be eliminated from our judicial system. They have included: difficulties in determining mental illness, differing opinions from psychiatrists concerning the sanity of the same subject, use of money to compromise psychiatrist’s conclusion in favor of the defendant, long time involved in the examination of one subject by psychiatrists thereby resulting to a delayed justice, artificial and crazy behavior by the subject during examination so as to influence the outcome of the examination, lack of scientific as well as an in-depth brain test to diagnose the patient, high cost when a forensic psychologist is involved, and lack of a trustworthy criteria for discharging such subjects from hospital.
Bonnie, R etal. “Decision Making in Criminal Defense: An Empirical Study of Insanity Pleas and the Impact of Doubted Client Competence” , Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 87, 1996.
Fass, M. “ A forensic Psychology Exercise: Role Playing and the Insanity Defense”, Teaching of Psychology, Vol. 26, 1999.
Manchester, J. “Beyond Accommodation: Reconstructing the Insanity Defense to Provide an Adequate Remedy for Postpartum Psychotic Women”. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 93, 2003.
Pasewark, A. A Review of Research on the Insanity Defense. Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science. London: Oxford University Press, 1986 pp 100-104
Sowell, T. Insanity defense . London: Oxford University Press, 1994