The Insanity Defense




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The insanity defense is a defense that is available for a person accused of committing a crime in a court of law.  When one takes a successful plea of insanity, then they are found not to be criminally responsible for the act (Brown, 2018).


The Insanity Defense in a Criminal Case

This defense is built around the fact that mentally ill persons do not have a full grasp of their actions and their consequences. It is, therefore, a legal doctrine which is based on a moral principle of humanizing the criminal justice system. Psychiatrists play a huge role in the mental evaluation of the accused person and they might be required to testify before a court on the condition of the person (Brown, 2018).


There are two general requirements for a criminal sanction of a charged person. One of these is that is the act needs to fit within a criminal statute (actus reus) and the other is that there needs to be an intent to commit an act and a desired outcome or consequence (mens rea). The Latter is used to justify the defense plea as there are various mental illnesses which hinder a person’s capacity to form mens rea (Brown, 2018). One of the best examples of an individual who successfully undertook the insanity plea was John Hinckley Jr., who executed an assassination attempt on former US president Ronald Reagan. It is, however, important to note that successfully undertaking an insanity defense does not necessarily mean that one goes free. Instead, most rulings will require that the individual be institutionalized for a given period.


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Insanity Defense Rules

The Insanity defense is quite controversial. While its supporters argue that it humanizes the justice system instilling a moral aspect, there are those who are against it. Such opponent groups argue that it is based on science that lacks precision and also that it affords the accused an easy escape route from their correction. This defense has, therefore, being revisited severally in the past in an attempt to improve upon it. This resulted in various rules that govern it. They include the Durham rule, the model penal code test, Irresistible impulse, and the M’Naughten standard (Simon, 2018).


The M’Naughten Standard requires that for one to take the insanity defense, then it must be proved clearly that the accused person, at the time of committing the crime, suffered from a disease of the mind that affected the reasoning making it hard to grasp the wrongful nature of the action. The Durham rule asserts that if a defendant commits a crime as a result of a mental disease, then such a person cannot be convicted of that crime (Gasch, 2016). This rule does not require a medical diagnosis. Another rule is the model penal code test which requires that a defendant undergoes a diagnosis with a mental defect that is relevant. This test is usually conducted by mental health professional usually appointed by the court. The Irresistible impulse test takes a keen look at the free will of an accused (Simon, 2018). It extends its definition beyond just knowing right from wrong but also asks the question of whether the person, at the time of committing a crime, could control their impulses to do wrong.


Assessment of Insanity Defense Rules

These various rules have their shortcomings. The M’Naughten standard has fallen under criticism for applying legal insanity rather than medical insanity hence lacking accuracy as the two definitions use different criteria. However, it has been appreciated for being quite strict. The Durham rule on the side, is too broad hence affording defendants an easy way out. One of the reasons it was heavily criticized is that even drug addicts could use it as an insanity defense (Gasch, 2016). The Model penal code is found to be great since it involves a medical practitioner for diagnosis. However, critics question the accuracy of such diagnosis hence discrediting this rule. Finally, the Irresistible Impulse test is considered more accurate than M’Naughten since it incorporates a new element of ‘control of impulses’ (Simon, 2018). Determining the difference between ‘uncontrollable actions’ and ‘actions that are merely uncontrolled’ is however, challenging. From this assessment, The Medal Penal Code obtains the most merit as it relies on a medical diagnosis rather than legal diagnosis as in M’Naughten. It is also not as broad as the Durham rule and lacks the shortcomings of the Irresistible impulse test.





Brown, K. P. (2018). Insanity defense typology. Behavioral sciences & the law36(3), 317-324.


Gasch, O. (2016). Prosecution Problems under the Durham Rule. The Catholic Lawyer5(1), 3.


Simon, R. J. (2018). The Jury’s Response to Legal Rules in Defense of Insanity Trials. In Jury and the Defense of Insanity(pp. 66-77). Routledge.


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