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Insanity Plea

By Alex-Petrou Oct 20, 2014 1463 Words

Insanity Plea


The insanity defense is a topic that seems to garner a lot of attention even though it is rarely used and only a few cases that invoke are actually successful. A combination of highly publicized cases that use it and the public’s misunderstanding of exactly what happens when someone is found “not guilty by reason of insanity”. It is because of cases like John Hinckley and Andrea Yates where the defendants are found not guilty by reason of insanity coupled with the public’s misunderstanding that causes the public to become so outraged with the insanity defense. The public has this common misconception that someone found not guilty by reason of insanity is just let go and is not punished for his or her crimes, but in reality a person found not guilty by reason of insanity is almost always civilly committed and often for a longer time then if the defendant had gone to prison. Public outcry can have a big effect on a state’s insanity defense laws ranging from changing the rule of law used to abolishing the defense altogether. The Michigan statue states:

68.21a Persons deemed legally insane; burden of proof. Sec. 21a. (1) It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution for a criminal offense that the defendant was legally insane when he or she committed the acts constituting the offense. An individual is legally insane if, as a result of mental illness as defined in section 400a of the mental health code, Act No. 258 of the Public Acts of 1974, being section 330.1400a of the Michigan Compiled Laws, or as a result of being mentally retarded as defined in section 500(h) of the mental health code, Act No. 258 of the Public Acts of 1974, being section 330.1500 of the Michigan Compiled Laws, that person lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his or her conduct or to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of the law. Mental illness or being mentally retarded does not otherwise constitute a defense of legal insanity. (2) An individual who was under the influence of voluntarily consumed or injected alcohol or controlled substances at the time of his or her alleged offense is not considered to have been legally insane solely because of being under the influence of the alcohol or controlled substances. (3) The defendant has the burden of proving the defense of insanity by a preponderance of the evidence. (Mich. Comp. Laws § 768.21a). Even though Michigan uses the ALI rule of law for its insanity defense it, like several other states has gone to allowing juries to find a defendant “guilty but mentally ill”. The Legislature created GBMI to limit the number of defendants being found “notguilty by reason of insanity” and being relieved of all criminal responsibility (People v. Kukla). In the case of People v. Kukla, the defendant “did not establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that she lacked the substantial capacity either to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of…her conduct or to conform... her conduct to the requirements of the law” (People v. Kukla). Therefore because she was found to be mentally ill, but didn’t meet all of the requirements to be legally insane she was found GBMI. For example, a defendant is found GMBI and is sent to a mental facility to get treatment until they are well enough to serve out the rest of his or her sentence in prison. Another defendant is found guilty in a state that doesn’t allow insanity as an affirmative defense, but because of a mental disease or defect brought up during sentencing also has to go to a mental institution until well enough to serve out the rest of the sentence in prison. (, 2014) In Michigan, only two of every 10,000 criminal defendants are under jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Mental Health because they have been judged insane. Having a mental illness alone isn't usually enough The mental illness has to be so severe that the defendant is unaware that his or her actions are wrong or is uncontrollably compelled to commit a criminal act. Typically, people who can legitimately claim insanity have a history of severe mental illness, although occasionally someone commits a crime during their first psychotic break. Even when the defendant's mental illness is obvious and acute, the insanity defense may not work. A more common verdict in Michigan is guilty but mentally ill, which doesn't impact the sentence but could affect the services that the defendant receives in the criminal-justice system. (Borum and Fulero, 1999) There are many criticisms of the insanity defense, and people have conveyed their displeasure at this type of defense.  The four main complaints are that the public believes that many offenders attempt to use this plea, and that susceptible juries are acquitting these defendants often.  The other two complaints are that the offenders are just released back into society way to soon, and that all insane people are excessively dangerous.  The reality of the situation is far different from what public opinion warrants.  (Greene et al, 2006) Insanity is only actually attempted in approximately 1 out of every 200 cases according to Greene et al, (2006).  Only one-fourth of those are successful in producing a verdict of insanity.  Contrary to public opinion, when an offender is found not guilty by reason of insanity, they are not set free, but remanded to a controlled facility for mental health patients for an average of three years.  The last complaint about the insanity defense deals with the psychological aspect of the plea.  Critics complain that should not be a legal defense, and base their arguments on the fact that there is little proven research on testing for insanity.  This means that the case relies heavily on the opinions of expert witnesses instead of hard data scientific methods. (Greene et al, 2006) The Ultimate Issue Rule holds that an expert witness is not permitted to render an opinion on the ultimate issue in the case because this would invade the province of the jury. Psychologist’s today state that they can predict and prevent mentally ill individuals. Some parties believe that Psychiatric diagnoses are not based on science, but opinion. How do you prove what is going on in someone’s head? This is a practice that is not exact and best guesses. There is a leap of faith at times in giving psychological opinion that sometimes exceeds the limits of the psychologists and sometimes unwarranted claims of expertise in matters of law and morality that they do not and cannot possess. (Goldstein, 1999)

Treatment for defendants after a failed insanity plea can be a difficult subject. If the prisoner has serious mental issues a prison may not have the correct staff or capabilities for proper treatment. Michigan Mental Health services provide a vast array of programs to assist with mental health, ranging from counseling services to rehabilitation programs. However if a prisoner is in need of serious mental services state prisons may not be able to provide the in depth psychotherapy needed. On the other side of the coin, if a prisoner was faking a mental illness this could lead to thousands of dollars in wasted tax dollars in therapy.

Even though public opinion of the insanity plea is overblown it is rarely used successfully in Michigan. With more stringent regulations and diagnoses needing to be proven defenses often use this as a last option in cases.  Ultimately, only a jury can decide the issue of insanity, this alone is one of the most frustrating part about the insanity defense. In other words, people who have no training in the subject, rarely come into contact with the mentally ill and have a minimal understanding of the issues involved, make decisions and long-lasting judgments that are frequently based on other peoples testimonies or opinions. The wrong verdict and a murder may go for a hospital visit rather than prison. It is considered shaky ground and rightfully so.

Borum, R. and Fulero, S. (1999). Empirical Research on the Insanity Defense and Attempted Reforms: Evidence Toward Informed Policy. [online] Law and Human Behavior. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2014]. Goldstein,, R. (1999). The Psychiatrist's Right and Wrong: Guide to Part IV: The lnsanity Ultimate Defense and the lssue Rule. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2014]. Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T. (2006).  Psychology and the Legal System (6th Ed.).  Florence, Kentucky.  Cengage Learning, (2014). Office of Recipient Rights. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2014]. Mich. Comp. Laws § 768.21a

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