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Questioning the Insanity Defense

by TChris

Asking mental health professionals whether a delusional woman who drowned her children knew the difference between right and wrong invites speculation.

My own belief is that no forensic psychiatrist can objectively answer the law's narrow question yes or no. There is no "truth" of the matter. Our science cannot yet map the psychotic experience of reality or measure its correspondence to the reality of the law's simplifying assumptions. The narrow right-from-wrong question may seem clear and obvious, but it is premised on assumptions that neither science nor philosophy can verify.

In a commentary published in the Psychiatric Times, Dr. Alan Stone argues that this common touchstone of the “insanity defense” asks the wrong question -- and suggests that no “right question” can easily be formulated.

I believe that the law's effort to formulate the right question about criminal responsibility and psychiatry's efforts to answer it are equally misguided. After centuries of efforts on the part of great legal scholars, jurists and philosophers to define the precise question they want answered, might it be time to acknowledge that such a definition is beyond the reach of legal reason? And if the legal question is unaskable, psychiatrists, even the best trained forensic psychiatrists, should recognize that it may be unanswerable.

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  • Re: Questioning the Insanity Defense (none / 0) (#1)
    by DawesFred60 on Wed Aug 31, 2005 at 10:38:31 AM EST
    Isn't it funny that our non court system would question the insanity defense? when most of us are totally insane, the fact is it can also be used against the innocent and the judges would hate and love that ideals for political reason.

    Re: Questioning the Insanity Defense (none / 0) (#2)
    by kipling on Wed Aug 31, 2005 at 05:21:42 PM EST
    I don't get it. Someone who kills herself and her children (assuming there's no worse alternative she was fleeing from) is obviously insane. What's to question?

    Re: Questioning the Insanity Defense (none / 0) (#3)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Wed Aug 31, 2005 at 06:17:46 PM EST
    When there's a homicide, Prosecutors are under enormous pressure to convict. I have an insanity defense murder trial starting next week. Even the prosecutor acknowledges my client was crazy. We have a top psychiatrist testifying for us and the prosecutor could not get one to testify that my client was sane. But he's going for it, arguing that while my client was crazy, he still knew right from wrong. The sad thing is even with all that, it's still going to be a tough sell. We're in a rural area and we just won't get an educated jury that will understand the whole thing. Also, people think that if someone's found insane at trial, they'll get out in a year fromt the mental hospital, which just isn't true. The sad truth is that we warehouse too many of our mentally ill in prisons and jails.

    Re: Questioning the Insanity Defense (none / 0) (#4)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Wed Aug 31, 2005 at 06:31:44 PM EST
    kipling, I never got it either. In Indiana a woman suffering from post partum depression drove her van at high speeds the wrong way with a carload of kids and a lot of people died. But she was found to know right from wrong and convicted. I really don't get it. It is a tragedy, but not a crime. To me she was so disturbed she did something she would never have done in her right mind. This isn't about the parents who burn their kids with cigs, or lock them in a closet for days ... etc, it's a fellow human being past the end of their rope. Society demands vengance, but humanity demands fairness.

    Re: Questioning the Insanity Defense (none / 0) (#5)
    by jimcee on Wed Aug 31, 2005 at 06:46:19 PM EST
    I truely don't care if someone is insane or not when they commit a murder but whether they are guilty of the actual crime. If it was self defence then let a jury decide. If the person was insane and that is the reason they committed the crime it still doesn't change the fact that a murder has been committed. A jury is a much better judge of how to decide what their community can accept than some foppish representative of the idealistic folks that believe they know what is best for the local folks while they hide inside thier own gated communities. How feudal. Whether one is sane or isn't sane when they commit a murder doesn't change the fact that a murder has been committed and someone is dead. Guilty but insane would in my opinion be the better choice because even the insane understand community justice. And even the insane deserve justice and compassion.

    Re: Questioning the Insanity Defense (none / 0) (#6)
    by glanton on Wed Aug 31, 2005 at 07:10:27 PM EST
    jimcee: You think it's all right to put insane people in regular prisons, then?

    Re: Questioning the Insanity Defense (none / 0) (#7)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Wed Aug 31, 2005 at 11:46:42 PM EST
    They are indeed asking the wrong question. Even most insane people know right from wrong. The difference between an insane and a sane person is whether they can control the urge to act on those impulses.

    Re: Questioning the Insanity Defense (none / 0) (#8)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu Sep 01, 2005 at 06:55:36 AM EST
    Insane premeditated murderers should be executed so they can never do it again and give justice to their victims. Their body parts could be used to save other lives. In the interest of compassion they should be told they are going to disneyland when the needle is inserted.