ABOUT THE INSANITY DEFENSE
WORLD WIDE WEB SITES:
DISSONANCE: HAVE INSANITY DEFENSE AND CIVIL COMMITMENT REFORMS MADE A
DIFFERENCE?" An examination of the insanity defense in the context of
liberal and conservative reforms over the past three decades. From "Back to the
Asylum: The Future of Mental Health Law and Policy in the United States" (Oxford
University Press, 1992) by John Q. LaFond and Mary L. Durham.
JOHN SALVI AND THE INSANITY DEFENSE:
Attorneys for John Salvi will argue in his trial that he should be found not
guilty by reason of insanity. They view their client as schizophrenic,
irrational, in need of hospitalization and care, and incapable of assisting them
in his defense.
In Massachusetts the standard that applies for determining insanity is that a
defendant can be found not responsible for a criminal act if, as a result of
mental disease or defect, he "lacks substantial capacity to appreciate the
wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the
law." This standard has been followed in many states since the early 1950s.
If the jury finds Salvi not guilty by reason of insanity, he will be
committed to a state hospital prison. Prosecutors will then have to prove each
year that he remains dangerous and mentally ill, in order to keep him in
Adopted from old Engish law, the insanity defense came from the idea that
some people are so mentally ill or unable to understand their actions that it is
unfair to hold them responsible for criminal actions.
Contrary to widespread belief, insanity is a defense that is rarely raised
and even more rarely successful. Only about one percent of defendants invoke it.
And juries seldom buy it. Of that one percent, only about one in five succeeds.
In addition, sixty to seventy percent of insanity pleas are for crimes other
than murder. Data indicates that those found not guilty by reason of insanity spend
more time locked up than if they were convicted of the crime and sent to
While rarely invoked,
the insanity defense has stirred public passions because it has arisen in several
high profile trials, such as the Lorena Bobbitt case and, the successful insanity
defense of John Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan and his chief of
staff, James Brady.
In Massachusetts, where Salvi is being tried,
Governor William Weld filed legislation in September 1995 to abolish the insanity
defense, replacing it with a new verdict of "guilty but insane" which would carry
a criminal penalty.
Weld's proposal would enable judges to determine the length of the hospital
prison stay for those found criminally responsible but insane. The burden then
would shift to the defense to prove that the defendant is no longer a danger or
mentally ill, in order to win relase. In proposing the change, Governor Weld
said murder victims are further victimized when their alleged killers invoke
Critics of Weld's proposal say it deprives society and the criminal justice
system of a choice that affirms free will and responsibility as guiding values
for American jurisprudence. Because the insane lack the free will to choose
between good and evil, acquittal of them validates society's right to punish
those who can make that choice.
Only Montana, Utah and Idaho prohibit the insanity defense.
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