The Insanity Defense: It’s Crazy!

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In 1981 John Hinkley Jr. shot and almost killed President Ronald Reagan and critically wounded Press Secretary James Brady.  Just a few months ago he was released from supervised psychiatric care and is a free man – having spent no time, at all, in prison. 

On Today’s Legal Brief – What Is The Insanity Defense?

First, if you are insane, please read no further – I don’t want to be a co-conspirator in any of your crimes.  (Bad Joke)

For everyone else, the general rule in criminal law is that there must be an intent to commit the crime – what is called a Mens Rea.  The insanity defense generally is that the Defendant admits to having physically done the crime but argues that due to a mental condition, he or she was not aware that what they were doing was wrong and, therefore, they could have had no intent to commit a crime.

The modern insanity defense is based on a British case from 1840 in which a guy named Daniel M’Naghten was found not guilty by reason of insanity because the Court found that he had mental issues and didn’t understand the wrongness of what he was doing when he shot and killed someone.  And from that point on the standard has been called the M’Naghten rule.

Tip of the Day: Legal rules are generally named after the Defendants (like your Miranda rights are named after Ernesto Miranda.) So, get arrested and establish legal precedent and you too can be famous.

Four states have done away with the insanity defense altogether:

  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Montana
  • Utah

If you are insane, do not commit a crime in those states.

So, an insanity plea must be backed by a mental health doctor – who must testify to the mentall illness but the final decision as to whether a person understood the wrongness of what they are doing is a jury decision. And juries don’t like this defense – it’s only successful 25% of the time.

If a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity they are institutionalized until they are the doctors feel the person is no longer a threat to society.  Sometimes, that can be longer than the prison term would be.

And finally, the insanity defense is not only for murder – it can be used for any crime.  But don’t try it at your speeding ticket hearing – people will think you’re crazy. However, talk to me if you’re involved in car accident.

Jeremy Hogan
Jeremy Hogan
Attorney Jeremy Hogan is a partner at Hogan & Hogan.