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The Insanity Defense: Definition, Famous Cases, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

This lesson will review the insanity defense. You will first examine the definition of the insanity defense. Then you will look at several famous insanity defense cases. Finally, you will review the pros and cons of the insanity defense.

Definition

You either recall or have at least read about President Reagan getting shot back in the 1980s? The man who attempted the assassination tried to assert the insanity defense when he was on trial for the crime.

The insanity defense is a defense where the individual who is charged with a crime admits that they committed a crime, but claim that they are not responsible for the crime due to mental illness; in other words, they are not guilty by reason of insanity.

Famous Cases

The initial case establishing the legal insanity test is commonly referred to as the M'Naghten case. In this case, the British Prime Minister was shot and killed. The shooter claimed that he believed that the Prime Minister was in a conspiracy against him and he was defending himself. The court decided to acquit, or dismiss, the charges against the shooter, by reason of insanity. However, the shooter was then sent to a mental institution for the duration of his life. The standard created by this case, which was that there was a presumption of sanity unless one could show a defect of the mind which resulted in one's inability to comprehend the nature of the act as wrong, became the standard in the United States.

As indicated earlier in this lesson, one famous case utilizing the insanity defense was the case involving the assassination attempt of former President Ronald Reagan. The shooter in that case, John Hinkley, apparently believed that he was part of the film entitled Taxi Driver. He believed that President Reagan was part of the movie and that Hinkley, as the main character, had to stalk the President and engage in a shoot out with him. Hinkley then did just that, shooting then President Reagan several times. When on trial, Hinkley's attorneys used the insanity defense to defend Hinkley's actions. Moreover, the Hinkley's defense attorneys demonstrated that Hinkley had had schizophrenia for years and submitted documentation of the disease. Hinkley was successful in the use of the insanity defense and currently resides in a mental institution.

Pros

Proponents of the insanity defense cite various reasons as to why the defense is necessary. Initially, proponents argue that punishment of mentally ill individuals does not make sense. Moreover, proponents argue that in mental institutions, mentally ill patients can get the help that they need. Furthermore, proponents assert that it is wrong to punish people who cannot understand that what they did was wrong. Finally, proponents contend that punishment, such as jail time, is not safe for mentally ill individuals.

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