• "COGNITIVE 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.


    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 custody.

  • 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 prison.

  • 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 insanity defenses. 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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