There are lots of mixed feelings about the so-called “insanity defense.” We remember some of the high profile insanity cases from the past such as John Hinkley Jr., Jeffrey Dahmer, Lorena Bobbit, John Salvi, and more recently James Holmes. There can be a lot of media hype and misinformation about what happened during these trials and possible outcomes when a person is found legally insane, but most of us feel skeptical about an insanity finding for a defendant who committed a serious crime such as rape or murder.
In reality, lawyers rarely use an insanity defense, the defense is rarely successful, and when people are found not guilty by reason of insanity (or not criminally responsible) they often spend longer periods of time in a psychiatric treatment setting then they would have spent in jail had they been found guilty.
When our emotions are not highly triggered by an egregious crime, most of us understand why criminal responsibility is an important legal concept. Since one element of a crime requires that we form criminal intent, is it fair to punish a young child, a person with a severe developmental disability, or a person who is extremely mentally ill (i.e., usually meaning psychotic or acutely manic) in the same way we might punish an adult who made a rational choice to engage in the criminal behavior? Think of a person who is so ill that he smashes a car window because he “sees” demonic spirits inside the car trying to seduce the young children who are passing by; or a person who becomes violent and impulsive after a major car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury; or even someone with a developmental disability who steals from a store because she doesn’t understand the concept of money. In these types of cases, it’s usually easy to see that the person did not fully understand what he or she was doing (i.e., appreciate the wrongfulness or criminality of their behavior) or was not fully able to control his or her behavior (i.e., conform his behavior to the requirements of the law).
There are times when it is important to evaluate how a disability, head trauma, or mental illness influenced someone’s “state of mind” so that the outcome of a criminal case can be fair. A psychologist or psychiatrist with advanced training in forensic mental health evaluations can help defendants and their attorneys understand the benefits and risks of a criminal responsibility defense and write a report that will allow the court to consider the link between a person’s mental health condition and his or her behavior at the time of a crime.