The Insanity Plea: History and Implications

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Since the beginning of Anglo-American law, the proposition that some criminal defendants should not be found guilty of their crimes by reason of mental instability has been a well established judicial action throughout centuries of jurisdiction. Even though the original intent of this practice was to soften the harsh consequences of capital punishments, the psychiatric state of persons convicted of crimes quickly became an important mechanism of social regulation. The justification for this mechanism lies in the assumption that the criminally insane are irrational and therefore non-responsible of their crimes. As we examine the history and implications of the insanity plea, a few questions should be kept in mind---1. How can we be sure that a person is indeed insane (he could be putting on a show) and 2. Should a mentally ill person be punished at all. Today in our legal system, there are numerous amounts of defense tactics that are designed to protect the rights of the accused, and to further the process of justice. However, in many cases this augmentation of justice has been taken too far, and as a result, pleas such as “Temporary insanity” are born. Indeed, the insanity defense in itself has been stretched nearly to its breaking point. In this analytical examination of the insanity plea, I will illustrate how, in some cases the insanity plea is necessary while in other cases, the use of the insanity plea is illegitimate. The history of the insanity defense goes back as far as government. As Thomas Maeder stated in his book Crime and Madness: The Origins and Evolutions of the Insanity Defense, surprisingly enough, “Throughout most of history there have been no specific criteria for exculpatory insanity”(3). In ancient Hebrew times, as Maeder notes, the law simply states that idiots, lunatics, and children below a given age are not to be held criminally responsible (3). In fact, in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, nothing has survived to reveal any revision to this exception, except for a section of Plato’s Laws (3). Platos Laws states that if a defendant is senile, a child, or legally insane he should be held accountable for no more than the payment of civil damages, “Except that if he has killed someone and his hands are polluted by murder he must depart to a place in another country and live there in exile for a year” (Maeder 3). Furthermore, since there are few early cases of the insanity plea, it is difficult to make concrete generalizations about the defense. Yet as time progressed, there had been some noted cases where the defendant was sentenced to life in prison (Maeder 4). “By the fifteenth century [...] If the defendant had committed the act, they had to convict; if he was insane, or a minor, or had killed in self-defense, they could recommend mercy...” (Maeder 5). However, in the sixteenth century, the jury gained the power to enter a “Special Verdict” if they felt the case was defensible. By the seventeenth century, the insanity defense was firmly established, and therefore widely accepted. In the eighteenth century, legal standards for the insanity defense varied. Some courts looked to whether the defendant was capable of knowing the difference between good and evil, while others asked whether the defendant was unaware of what he did. By the nineteenth century, it was commonly accepted that insanity was a question of fact, and this determination was left to the jury. Although the idea of insanity as an excuse for crime is antiquated, the insanity defense as we know it is relatively modern. During the 19th century in England, the British courts had created a legal distinction between those who were aware of the difference between good and evil, and this was called the “wild beast” test. The law was that “if a defendant was so bereft of sanity that he understood the ramifications of his behavior no more than an infant, a brute, or a wild beast, he would not be held responsible for his crimes”...
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