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.