Insanity and Criminal Responsibility Chapter 7 Rationale for Insanity

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Insanity and Criminal Responsibility

  • Chapter 7

Rationale for Insanity

  • focus on mental state at the time of the crime

  • a legal compromise to a moral dilemma

    • absence of mens rea
    • Also called mental state at the time of the offense (MSO)

Insanity Standards

  • Wild Beast Standard

    • One of first formalized standards
      • Rex v. Arnold (1724)
    • must be totally deprived of understanding and memory, and not know what he is doing anymore than an infant, brute, or a wild beast


  • Disease of the mind

  • Did not know what he was doing

  • Did not know what he was doing was wrong

  • Most conservative of the three modern standards

  • widely adopted in the United States

  • Many later added the irresistible impulse test

Product Rule and Durham

  • “an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of a mental disease or mental defect”

  • Most liberal of the modern standards

  • Problems with the rule

    • Assumed universal constructs of “mental disease/defect”
    • Difficult to determine whether the criminal act was the product of a mental disease/defect

ALI Rule and Brawner

  • “at the time of such conduct, as a result of a mental disease or defect, (lacks) substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality [wrongfulness] of his conduct or to conform to his conduct to the requirement of the law”

  • Volitional, affective, and cognitive elements

  • Compromise between M’Naghten and Durham

Insanity Defense Reform Act (1984)

  • IDRA

    • Federal law passed in reaction to shooting of President Regan and associates
    • removed the volitional prong of ALI
    • barred ultimate issue testimony
    • placed the burden of proof on the defendant
    • standard of proof became clear and convincing evidence

Guilty But Mentally Ill (GBMI)

  • originated as an additional option

  • Defendant may be found GBMI if

    • guilty of the offense
    • mentally ill at the time of the offense
    • not legally insane at the time of the offense
  • GBMI defendant was to receive identical sentence as someone found guilty, but begin sentence in hospital

  • In reality, GBMI defendants receive more strict supervision upon release and do not receive proper mental health treatment

Challenges to the Insanity Defense

  • Four states have abolished the insanity defense

  • Clark v. Arizona (2006)

    • Arizona did not wish to include a cognitive element in its insanity standard
    • Court ruled that Arizona’s definition of insanity, no matter how narrowly defined, was appropriate
    • There continues to be no constitutional requirement for an insanity standard

Studies Assessing the Insanity Standard in Mock Jurors

  • Varying standards have little impact on juror verdicts

  • Reasons for lack of differences

    • Low comprehension of jury instructions
    • Prior knowledge about insanity
    • Standards may be even more complex than previous standards
    • Lack of deliberation in most prior studies
  • Availability of GBMI option has a significant impact on verdict distribution

Insanity Myths

  • Standard makes a significant difference

  • Frequency of the defense

  • Severity of mental illness

  • Severity of crime

  • Disposition of insanity acquittals

  • Danger of acquittees

Evaluations of Insanity

  • One of most difficult assessments in forensics

    • Legal doctrine is often unclear
    • Focus is retrospective
    • Greater reliance on third party information
    • No universally accepted interviews or psychological tests

Common procedures for Insanity Evaluations

  • Interview, forensic related instruments, and collateral information

  • Borum & Grisso (1996) survey identified central elements

    • Psychiatric history
    • Current mental status
    • Formal mental status exam
    • Any psychotropic medication
    • Psychological testing
    • Mental health records
    • Police information
    • Prior diagnosis
    • Any alcohol or substance use
    • Defendant’s description of the offense
    • Collateral description of the offense

Reliability and Validity of Insanity Evaluations

  • A great deal of agreement among mental health professionals about decisions

    • Individual factors may introduce bias though
  • Studies examining validity of insanity decisions are rare and difficult to conduct but suggest respectable results

    • Hard to study validity of Insanity measures because there is no “gold standard”

Forensic Specific Measures

  • Mental State at the Time of the Offense Screening Evaluation (MSE)

    • Semi-structured measure to assess issues related to criminal responsibility (i.e. insanity)
    • Lack of research on instrument
  • Rogers Criminal Responsibility Assessment Scales (RCRAS)

    • 30-item measure divided into 5 components
    • Recommended for use with ALI and M’Naghten standards
    • Criticized for interrater reliability, emphasis on ultimate issue, quantification of judgment
    • better than any alternative

Malingering and Insanity

  • Threat to malingering appears significant given the stakes in insanity cases

  • Lack of evidence to suggest rates are higher than other forensic areas

  • Many measures exist for the assessment of malingering in these cases

    • Some say that failure to use a standard measure does not fulfill Daubert criteria

Other Issues of Criminal Responsibility

  • Automatism

  • Diminished capacity

    • Testimony regarding mental status at the time of the crime without claiming insanity
  • Intoxication

    • Can’t be the basis for insanity but can be used to can be a basis for insufficient mens rea

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