Should Insanity Alleviate Legal Responsibility?

Professor Davis asked the class to watch a documentary entitled “The Mind of a Murderer.” The documentary, the second of a two-part PBS special aired in 1985, focuses on the crimes and trial of Kenneth Bianchi. Bianchi participated in the rape and murder of at least ten young women in the late 1970’s, and when he was arrested, he plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

Indeed, Bianchi convinced several experts in the field of psychology that he had multiple personality disorder. The documentary shows footage of several trained psychologists and psychiatrists defending Bianchi based on what they had perceived was a legitimate personality disorder. Eventually, though, investigators determined him to be faking. In fact, from my own admittedly biased outside perspective, the footage of Bianchi shows him to clearly be faking throughout the entire trial.

I realize that psychology has greatly advanced throughout the last few decades, but the fact that Bianchi was able to so easily convince the psychiatrists who examined him of his fake mental disorder is very alarming.

Say the investigators hadn’t brought in their own psychiatrists to examine Bianchi. Based on his original diagnosis, Bianchi’s innocence due to insanity would have held. He would have gotten away with the murders of ten women, which were performed in cold blood by a completely sane individual.

Perhaps if this were a unique case, it would be less alarming. However, the insanity defense has been used in several high-profile and controversial cases in the past century. One particularly famous instance of a case in which a defendant was found innocent by reason of insanity was the trial of John Hinkley in 1981 after he assassinated President John F. Kennedy. The majority of Americans were outraged, feeling that either the claim of insanity was not legitimate or that regardless of that, he had not been adequately punished for his crime.

This brings up two major questions regarding the defense of insanity:

First, is insanity easy enough to reliably determine within an individual to relieve them of any sort of legal responsibility?

Second, even if a person is truly found to be insane, does it fully release him or her from the moral responsibility that goes along with taking another person’s life?

In my opinion, insanity is too broadly defined to be used as a full-proof defense against any sort of charge of wrong-doing. In criminal law, there isn’t even an agreed upon definition of insanity. If a defendant plans out a crime while in a delusional state of mind, is he or she guilty? On one hand, the defendant is arguably insane; however, he or she was able-minded enough to intend to commit the crime. Does mens rea cancel out the defense of insanity?

Although these issues are extremely unclear, it remains important to at least acknowledge them. It seems that the legal defense of insanity may be one of but many aspects of our legal system that could use some reform.


5 thoughts on “Should Insanity Alleviate Legal Responsibility?

  1. I absolutely agree that the legal defense of insanity is an area of law that is in many ways outdated. Too often it is used to acquit a guilty actor; defense lawyers are quite adept at finding methods of demonstrating their client’s insanity, which has a very broad and vague definition. The history of the insanity defense is one that has progressed from lenient to strict and is currently experiencing a regression back to lenient. If you’re interested in such a topic, the M’Naghten Rule, Durham Standard, and MPC Standard might be good places to start.

  2. The topic of the insanity case is extremely contentious and complicated and I appreciate you bringing it up on the blog. I do not believe however, that the legal defense of insanity is in anyways outdated. I truly believe that the legal system is in place to protect all citizens, not only the victims of crimes but also the defendants on trial. Everyones rights are meant to be protected and without the insanity defense, many people’s rights to justice would be diminished.

    You raised the question of whether or not being legally insane releases a person fully from the moral responsibility of taking another person’s life. I believe that being the cause of an action necessarily makes a person in some way morally responsible for the outcome. Being legally insane at the time a crime was committed may exonerate someone of being legally responsible but that person is still in a sense responsible for the crime. Punishing a person deemed as legally insane as harshly as one would punish a sane criminal is not justice at all.\


  3. While I agree with truebamc in that our legal system has a responsibility to protect all of its citizens, including those put on trial, the complex moral disputes that result from the insanity defense warrant further consideration of its legitimacy. Upon contemplation, the question readily becomes what we should hold in higher regard — the good of the individual on trial, or the good of greater society? A truly insane individual might very well have no control over his actions. That said, what if he is treated “effectively;” it is difficult (and perhaps irresponsible) to merely assume he or she won’t commit another crime. Therefore, I have a difficult time allowing for such individuals to be let back into society, and given all the rights and privileges of his or her fellow citizens. Whether this insane individual is released from the moral responsibility of committing a heinous crime is not of greatest concern. Rather, will he pose a threat to the well-being of his or her fellow citizens? If this question cannot be answered with the full confidence that he or she will not, then I believe this individual should forever be “punished” (that is, stripped of his rights and privileges and isolated from society).

  4. I would definitely agree that insanity is a somewhat ambiguous term when used in a court of law. While insanity is a claim that must be given due respect at least initially, it is my opinion that our courts must be very careful with how it is related to responsibility. It seems that at least initially, convicted felons would be inclined to use insanity as a cop out for their actions. Because of that, giving an adverse amount of respect to insanity could create a very slippery slope and furthermore, a precedent that communicates acceptance of such heinous crimes. As described by Strewson, moral responsibility really may be nullified under particular circumstances. Despite this, it is my belief that our courts must be without doubt that the defendant’s psychological make up is such that his or her responsibility is nullified. I agree that at least on the surface, insanity could probably be more clearly defined.

  5. These questions are very compelling, but as you make reference to, are very gray in their nature and not possible to answer. Insanity is not clearly defined, as there are varying degrees and extents to which someone can be qualified as insane. On the other side, you see criminals like Bianchi keenly aware of this weakness in the judicial system which lessens the legal responsibility for crimes committed, and perfectly sane criminals try to exploit the system. I think someone who is truly insane fundamentally lacks the capability to discern what is morally right and wrong, and moral responsibility therefore is released. In terms of legal responsibility, I think it should be judged on a case-by-case basis. That is what is a strength in our judicial system, that we are able to rely on precedent when we must, but always consider cases on an individual basis. But you’re absolutely right, regardless of the answer, these questions must be asked.

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