Defenses to Criminal Liability Explain Term Paper

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When does insanity excuse criminal liability?

A defendant has an excuse for liability, says Paul Robinson, in his book Criminal Law Defenses, when he or she is acting involuntarily and their own disability causes him or her to mistakenly or unknowingly violate a criminal prohibition. This person does not know whether his or her behavior is wrong or criminal (Robinson 222). This is in contrast to what is called a character-based approach, where a person's adherence to virtues or vices creates a character and a reputation for morality or immorality, upon which they are judged. Finkelstein argues that a system which bases its retributive punishment on a person's character, rather than on the act itself brings about social welfare. Just as one cannot judge a person's moral character upon a single act, one cannot decide the morality or immorality of a person by visible actions. She quotes George Fletcher as saying "[if] a bank teller opens a safe and turns money over to a stranger, we can infer that he is dishonest. But if he does all this at gunpoint, we cannot infer anything one way or another about his honesty" (Fletcher 800).

However, one's character or disposition has little to do with insanity excuses, because the insane are those who are incapable of controlling their actions under the law and cannot be said to have a moral character, since morality has nothing to do with their actions and their actions are neither for nor against society, but are based solely on involuntary motivations generated from sources they do not have control over.

The law either favors the actions of a person, or tolerates it when a criminal act is committed by someone in any of those four modes of activity mentioned above (infancy, insanity, settled insanity and automatism).

The President Reagan assassination attempt by John Warnock Hinckley, Jr.:

Under the defenses to criminal liability, was the verdict in the Hinckley case and his subsequent commitment to a mental hospital, rather than prison, a miscarriage of justice?

When Hinckley was found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity on all charges on June 21, 1983 in Washington, D.C., most of the American public felt that "justice had not been done," according to an ABC News poll the next day (Hans, 202). The overall opinion of legal insanity defenses stimulated immediate changes in the insanity defense. At the time of the verdict, the way the justice system was set up allowed Hinckley to go to prison on an insanity charge, rather than face a verdict determined by his actions and character. According to the times in which the trial occurred, justice was served.

Why or why not?

Only 2% of felony cases are returned Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, but in the case of John Hinckley, Jr., the odds were for him and the jury found him legally insane. When the jury assessed the mental condition of Hinckley, the defense claimed one finds a clear case of insanity and displayed evidence of Hinckley's delusional state as the motivation for attempting to kill Reagan. The prosecution claimed he did it in full cognizance of the moral implications and knew the consequences of his actions. They said "he was capable of deliberation, of planning," according to the examination by Mr. Roger Adelman, Government Attorney of Dr. Park Elliott Dietz, Government Witness. Yet the jury decided in favor of the defense.

In the considered John Warnock Hinckley, Jr. case, in 1983 it was up to the jury to decide whether Hinckley was "insane" or not. Under the laws of the time, this was a case of justice being served, even though immediately following this trial, codes were analyzed and changed.

Works Cited

Article 35 of the NY State Penal Code: Found at

Finkelstein, Claire. Excuses and Dispositions in Criminal Law. U. Of Buffalo. 14 Apr 2003.

Fletcher, George. Rethinking Criminal Law. 1978.

Hans, Valerie P. And Slater, Dan. "John Hinckley, Jr. And the Insanity Defense: The Public's Verdict," the Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 47(2). 1983.

Linder, Doug, "The Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr." Famous American Trials. University of Kansas. 2001. Website:

Robinson, Paul H. Criminal Law Defenses. 1984.

Walker, David. The Oxford Companion to Law. 1980. Found on the…[continue]

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