AP English Language
16 May 2013
The M’Naghten Rule
“The defendant [Daniel M’Naghten] attempted to kill the Prime Minister and instead killed his secretary. The trial judge instructed the jury to acquit if the defendant was ‘not sensible’ at that time. The jury found the defendant not guilty, and on questions propounded by the House of Lords, 15 English judges stated the accused was not guilty if he were ‘labouring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act that he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.’” (Coleman and Davidson) This murder and court case took place in 1843 and was the source of much controversy. This also led to the controversial M’Naghten rule used in today’s courtrooms in relation to the use of an insanity plea. For those who are not aware, an insanity plea is when a defendant in a court case states that he/she has a mental disorder that prevented him/her from being aware of his or her actions or the wrongness of his/her actions. This in turn leads to an insanity defense. “The insanity defense is a legal provision that protects those who are sufficiently incapacitated because of mental illness or defect from being held criminally liable for their acts.” (Ahia) According to the M’Naghten rule or test, “it must be clearly and convincingly shown that because of his or her mental disease or defect, the defendant was incapable of forming the guilty intent or mind-set required by the crime.” (Ahia) This rule is an issue because of cases such as that of Perry Smith who was tried for the murder of a family. Because of the M’Naghten rule, the psychiatrist who testified for Perry could not disclose the fact that there was very strong evidence that he had a severe mental illness. Perry ends up being sentenced to death and hanged. (Capote 296, 307, 337)
The M’Naghten rule has been left in place all these years because of the lack of enough restrictions on the other rules that some states have adopted, and because it seems that no one can create an insanity defense that everyone can agree on that has enough restrictions on it. One such rule, the Durham rule, gives a very broad definition of insanity. “Under the so-called Durham rule, ‘an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect.’” (Insanity Defense Key Events) As Roger E. Zyistra put it, “It does indeed appear that the words ‘mental disease’ mean just what the psychiatrists choose them to mean.” (88) Congress even passed a Insanity Defense Reform Act. Though it was only for federal courts, it placed new limitations on eligibility for the insanity defense and several states incorporated the new standards into their own insanity defense laws. (Insanity Defense Key Events) More specifically, it requires “that a defendant bear the burden of establishing his or her insanity by ‘clear and convincing evidence.’ Some jurisdictions have gone further, instituting bifurcated procedures in which the defendant’s criminal responsibility is determined after a much-simplified determination of guilt or innocence. This makes it possible for an ‘insane’ defendant to be found guilty of a crime and the evidence of insanity considered during the dispositional phase of the case. In such jurisdiction, for example, John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, would be found guilty of attempted murder because the evidence showed he did commit the act, but before his sentencing, evidence of his insanity would be introduced to determine the nature of his sentencing, or responsibility.” (Ahia) Another reason M’Naghten rule is still in place is because of “the potential of mental-disease evidence to mislead jurors (when they are the factfinder) through the power of this kind of evidence to suggest that a defendant suffering from a recognized mental disease lacks cognitive, moral, volitional, or other capacity, when that may not be a sound conclusion at all.” (Clark v. Arizona) What this means is that the defense lawyers could manipulate the psychiatrists’ testimony to make the jury believe something about a certain mental disease that is not necessarily true. Though it is believed that any other rule but the M’Naghten rule will not be strict enough to keep the guilty from abusing the insanity defense, this rule can lead to the unconstitutional execution of mentally disabled people and gives psychiatrists the undeserved right to decide what was going on in a stranger’s mind at some point in the past. The M’Naghten rule should be abolished because it gives a power to psychiatrists that no one should have. “The object, in the court’s view, is to permit the psychiatrist to present all the pertinent medical testimony and his own expert appraisal of the mental condition of the accused; but he should not be allowed to answer the ultimate question as to whether the defendant, at the time he committed the alleged criminal act, knew the difference between right and wrong.” (Zyistra 90) This essentially means that a psychiatrist should not be able to answer the final question as to whether or not the defendant knew right from wrong at the time of the crime or if he/she was in his/her right mind at that time. It is not that much of a stretch to say that a psychiatrist can know what is going on in a person’s head at a present moment in time, but no one can know what went on in someone’s head during a past event that they did not witness, especially not someone who is a complete stranger. What a psychiatrist can do to help the jury understand the sanity or insanity of the defendant would be to test the defendant for any relevant mental disorders that could have affected the defendant’s actions at the time of the illegal action committed. One way to help decrease the amount of people misusing the insanity defense is to follow Michigan’s example and pass “guilty but mentally ill” statutes. (Insanity Defense Key Events) This would be greatly beneficial with the issue of convicted persons misusing the insanity plea and defense to simply get out of being convicted. Another reason that the M’Naghten rule should be done away with because it can and does lead to the executions of the mentally disabled. Case and point being Perry Smith. He, along with his accomplice Richard Hickock, were on trial for the murder of a family of four. During the case, the defense lawyer attempted to use the insanity defense. The only issue with this was that in the state of Kansas where the murder had happened and where the trial was taking place, the M’Naghten rule was the current insanity defense law being used in the courtroom. The verdict of this court case was guilty and the punishment was the death penalty. The following illustrates the testimony of the psychiatrist, Dr. Jones, during the case. “‘From your conversations and examination of Perry Edward Smith, do you have an opinion as to whether he knew right from wrong at the time of the offense involved in this action?’ And once more the court admonished the witness: ‘Answer yes or no, do you have an opinion?’
Amid surprised mutters, Fleming, surprised himself, said, ‘You may state to the jury why you have no opinion.’
Green objected: ‘The man has no opinion and that’s it.’ Which it was, legally speaking.
But had Dr. Jones been permitted to discourse on the cause of his indecision, he would have testified: ‘Perry Smith shows definite signs of severe mental illness.’” (Capote 296) The question is, what is so bad about this? He committed the crime, he deserves the punishment, right? Wrong. “The Supreme Court has ruled on various occasions that the execution of an insane criminal defendant is unconstitutional.” (Ahia) The M’Naghten rule makes it very difficult to uphold this ruling when the juries are not aware of the mental status of the criminal they are sentencing.
“Insanity under the strict M’Naghten rule includes only the small minority of offenders who have no understanding whatsoever that their offense is unlawful, the sort of offender who shoots the victim thinking he was a tree. An offender could be mentally ill by psychiatric standards but still be considered sane... The mere diagnosis of schizophrenia or mental retardation came to be regarded as insufficient evidence of incompetence in any legal situation. Instead, legal tests focused on the presence or absence of decision-making skills demanded in specific situations.” (DeWolfe) The M’Naghten rule only helps those of extreme mental illness, and there are more mental illnesses around that are not severe than there are severe ones. The insanity defense could be used for more than just acquittals without the M’Naghten rule in place. It would simply exponentially decrease the number of unconstitutional deaths. The governments of the states and that of the nation also need to stop allowing psychiatrists to pretend they can see into the past, otherwise we are going to have a lot more fortune tellers and a lot less psychiatrists. If the M’Naghten rule is not abolished, it is going to cause a lot of unconstitutional deaths to occur and turn a lot of psychiatrists into psychics.
Ahia, C. Emmanuel. "Insanity defense." Psychology and Mental Health. Ed. Nancy A. Piotrowski, 3d ed. 5 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2009. Salem Health Web. 14 May. 2013.
This source is an article that gives a section on insanity defense tests and then goes on to explain the medical side of the insanity defense. This source is relevant and useful because it goes more into the medical side of the M’Naghten Rule. The intended audience for this source is the psychiatric community as a kind of explanation of this legal rule in psychiatric terms.
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Random House, 1965. Print. A section of the book tells about the attempted insanity defenses of one of two men being tried for a murder. This source is useful and relevant because it gives the restrictions on testimony when under the M'Naghten rule and, when paired with the rest of the book, shows how easily someone with a mental disorder can end up with the death penalty being carried out upon them. The intended audience of this source is anyone in the adult crowd that is interested in the details of a murder case.
"CLARK v. ARIZONA." n.pag. SIRS Government Reporter. Web. 14 May 2013. This source is a court case that challenges the thoroughness M’Naghten Rule. This is a very useful and relevant source because it also gives both sides of the argument. Considering this source is a court case, I am not sure that it had an intended audience, but considering it’s about a certain legal preceding and also has to do with mental illness, it would most likely be viewed by those in the legal and medical professions.
Coleman, Arthur H., MD, JD, and Arthur T. Davidson, MD, JD. "M'Naghten Rule: The Right or Wrong of Criminal Law." Journal of the National Medical Association. 8th ed. Vol. 70. San Francisco: National Medical Association, 1978. 599. MEDLINE with Full Text. Web. 26 Apr. 2013. This source summarizes the two different sides of the M’Naghten Rule. This source is very useful and relevant to the topic because it gives both sides of the argument. The intended audience for this source was the National Medical Association, or people of the medical profession or interest.
DeWolfe, Thomas E. "Abnormality: Legal models." Psychology and Mental Health. Ed. Nancy A. Piotrowski, 3d ed. 5 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2009. Salem Health Web. 14 May. 2013. This source is an article that goes through the different insanity defense rules and the relationship between legal proceedings and psychiatry. This source is relevant and useful because it gives a more in depth description of each of the insanity defense rules and how they apply to different cases. The intended audience of this source is members of the psychiatric profession who are interested in law.
"Insanity Defense Key Events (sidebar)." Issues & Controversies On File: n. pag. Issues & Controversies. Facts On File News Services, 13 Aug. 1999. Web. 14 May 2013. This source is a timeline of the insanity defense and the different rules that have come and gone along with it. This source is relevant and useful because it not only gives the M’Naghten Rule, it also gives other rules that could have or have partially taken its place. The intended audience of this source is to possible future law students, or people not as educated who want to know more about the insanity defense.
Zyistra, Roger E. "Case Notes." The American University Law Review. Vol. 11. Washington D.C.: American University, 1962. 87-90. Print.
This source is essentially what its title says it is: It is notes on a Supreme Court case Currens v. United States which was about the degree of conclusiveness of psychiatric testimony under the M’Naghten Rule. This source is relevant and useful because it gives the exact definition of “insanity” that has been used throughout different court cases, including ones in which the M’Naghten Rule applied. The intended audience for this source would be lawyers and law students, considering it was published in the 11th volume of the American University Law Review.