Judicial Process The Insanity Defense Essay

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For example, there is currently a case in Florida were a 50-year-old woman shot and killed her teenage son and daughter. She said she did it because they were "mouthy" to her and she was tired of it. There is no word yet on whether she will plead insanity, but there is evidence that she purchased a gun days before the shooting occurred (Brennan, 2011). That could block her chances at having an insanity plea accepted by a jury, because the purchase of the gun shows planning on her part.

Rules of the States - Cases

Each state sets its own rules about what makes a person "insane," because when used in this way it is a legal defense and not a medical defense. Whether a state wants to consider lesser degrees of mental difficulty as part of a person's defense (by reducing that person's punishment, for example) is up to that state (Burns, 2011). Some states will do that, but it is at their discretion. Florida has nothing in its statutes to indicate that this would be an option, but there is also nothing that specifically prohibits it. Public outcry may affect how a mentally ill person is treated, but ultimately it is up to a judge (or jury) to determine guilt and hand down punishment for a crime that has been committed. While they sometimes listen to popular opinion - especially on high-profile cases where that is hard to avoid - they ultimately must come to their own conclusions regarding the guilt or innocence of a person who is on trial and the punishment that person should receive.

The insanity defense overall is not overused. Some people actually do meet the criteria for being criminally insane, and they can be a serious danger to society. Still, out of all the U.S. criminal cases, the insanity plea is used only 1% of the time - and 35% of those are cases involving murder (Burns, 2011). Out of those cases, 25% are successful. Seventy percent of the successful cases come about because of a deal being struck between the prosecution and the defense (Burns, 2011). There is also the issue of whether a person who is, technically, insane, can be treated and medicated so that he or she is deemed sane enough to stand trial. This can affect the outcome of the case and what will happen to the person who has been accused of the crime.

Some argue that the insanity defense should be abolished because of its lack of use, but there are cases where it is clearly warranted. There have been several notable cases where the insanity defense has been used, including the Andrea Yates trial and Italy's "Black Widow." Lorena Bobbitt was another case where an insanity or mental illness defense was used. She was eventually found not guilty due to the "irresistible impulse" defense (Burns, 2011). It is easy to see that there are many opinions on the insanity defense, and there are times when it perhaps should have worked for a severely mentally ill person but did not. In other cases, people "got away with" their crimes in the minds of the jurors because they were placed in a mental facility instead of in prison.

There is currently no movement to abolish the insanity defense, so it appears as though it will be around for some time to come. However, the argument that is wastes a lot of money and is not worth the time and hassle is one that is still being made. Since it is used so rarely, the cost of it may actually be less than society thinks - and when someone really is so mentally damaged that they do not know right from wrong it seems unfair to incarcerate them for life or execute them. There have been cases of mentally ill people and people with low IQs being sentenced to death, when they really did not understand the nature and severity of their crime. One man with a low IQ even asked if he could save the dessert from his last meal until after his execution. He clearly did not understand that he would not be coming back. Is it fair to punish and execute these people?

That question is one that is argued by those who have strong feelings about the death penalty and also by those who have strong feelings about the insanity defense and people who are mentally ill. There will be no easy answers for what should be done about the insanity defense, largely because it is different for every state and, therefore, hard to "pin down" in the area of specific changes. For states such as Florida, that have the burden of proof on the defense, it looks like nothing will be changed. That is good news, since putting the burden on the prosecution would be something that would open the door to many more people using the insanity plea in an attempt to get out of being punished for their crimes. If the state had to prove the person was sane, that could clog the courts and cost much more than the current way of handling the issue.


Overall, it does not appear that any changes should be made to the insanity defense. It is very difficult to prove, but it is still possible to prove for people who are technically insane. The people who are a danger to society and who are not safe to be out among others, but who really do not understand what they did and why it was wrong, can get mental health treatment. They are not "getting away with" their crime, because they have still lost their freedom and many of their rights. They are still being "incarcerated," only they will be in a mental health facility instead of a jail. As long as they are receiving proper treatment and being prevented from harming anyone else, the insanity defense has worked correctly. Given the low number of people who actually attempt the insanity defense - and the even lower numbers that succeed - it would not appear that the defense is being abused or misused in any way, and it should stand as it currently is.

Because politicians, lawmakers, religious organizations, and civil liberties organizations often have different agendas, though, it is possible that there will be changes to the insanity defense in the future. The fact that four states have abolished it and another state has severely restricted it (and that has all been upheld by the highest Court in the land) would indicate that people are becoming disenchanted with the insanity defense, regardless of how little it is used. The more people voice their frustration about something, the more chance there will be that it will be changed or adjusted. It seems, though, that there would need to be many more high-profile cases where the insanity defense is used before people as a whole become too concerned about whether it is being overused or abused in some way. When it appears that people are "getting away with" their crimes because they are going to mental facilities and not being place in prison, it may be time to make changes.


Brennan, T. (2011). Insanity defense rarely used and rarely successful. Tampa Bay Online News. Retrieved from http://beta2.tbo.com/news/news/2011/jan/31/insanity-defense-rarely-used-and-rarely-successful-ar-11293/

Burns, K.S. (2011). Mental illness and criminal insanity. Retrieved from http://karisable.com/crmh.htm

Ellis, J.W. (1986). The Consequences of the Insanity Defense: Proposals to reform post-acquittal commitment laws. 35 Catholic University Law Review 961.

Florida laws: Florida statutes - Title XLVI Crimes Section 775.01. Common law of England. (2010). Onecle.com. Retrieved from http://law.onecle.com/florida/crimes/775.027.html

Gostin, L. (1982). Human Rights, Judicial Review and the Mentally Disordered Offender. (1982) Criminal Law Review, 779.

Schmalleger, F. (2001). Criminal Justice: A Brief Introduction. New York, NY: Prentice Hall.

Walker, N. (1968). Crime and Insanity in England:…[continue]

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