Ethics in Insanity Defense Capstone Project

Excerpt from Capstone Project :

Ethical Issues With the Insanity Defense

Ethical Issues w / Insanity Defense

The insanity defense may seem to have a distinct and real place in the legal world. However, defining who is insane, who is not insane, what the definition of insanity is, whether insanity is temporary or permanent, who should be liable and when and so forth are all burning questions that are extremely hard to answer in a scientific, dispassionate and objective fashion due to the rights and burdens of everyone involved. This report shall seek to answer questions about the ethics of the lawyers, defendants, prosecutors and even the clinicians involved in the insanity defense process and definitions.

Ethical Issues with the Insanity Defense

The Problem

There are numerous cases that exist currently and historically regarding the "Insanity Defense." In some cases, those convicted for committing heinous crimes, was said to be guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). In some cases, the person that committed the crime was not aware or cognizant of his or her actions at the time when the crime was committed. In other insanity cases, the perpetrator was not in his or her right mind and was riddled by some form of mental illness. Even with the fairly basic nature and reason for the plea, there are some ethical issues that become apparent as it relates to the use of the plea. The criminal justice system has been sworn to protect and serve the community. In many cases, it only becomes a question of ethics if there is a misuse of the insanity defense. This defense can sometimes cause one to question this defense because victims of the perpetrator are left to resolve the death of their loved ones based on guilty by reason of insanity. In some situations, criminals are not competent to stand trial for their crime, which for families of the victims; closure seems to be never ending, especially if there is not a death or life sentence involved. However, criminals that commit crimes without knowledge of the act should be entitled to receive proper help and receive a fair trial rather than simply being thrown in a cell and left untreated (Cornell, 2015).

II. Factors Bearing on the Problem

The insanity defense is based on the assumption that at the time of the crime, the defendant was not sound of mind; therefore, was incapable of appreciating the nature of the crime and differentiating right and wrong behavior. For those that are insane, treatment rather than jail is the proper protocol (Cornell, 2015).

The insanity defense implies that a criminal should not be found guilty on the basis of his or her mental illness or guilty by reason of insanity because he or she could not distinguish between right and wrong or good and evil. The insanity defense stems from Daniel M'Naughten, an Englishman who shot and killed the secretary of British Prime Minister in 1843. As a result, Daniel M'Naughten was sentenced to a mental institution for the rest of his life because he was declared mentally ill at the time he committed the crime (Legal Information Institute, 2010; (Cornell, 2010).

Some people use "temporary" insanity or "heat of the moment" defenses to justify why the crime occurred but, at the same time, the person who commited the offense should not go to jail (Covey, 2011).

Much of medical, psychology and psychiatry fields are meant to be precise and specific but there is a lot of room for interpretation and manipulation when it comes to all medical and mental details about these crimes and the associated defenses except for brain scans and the like (Shiels, 2014).

III. Discussion

The criminal justice system is supposed to protect the lives of its citizens. However, that is not always the case. Although the laws of the land are put in place to protect, the judicial system does not always appear to adhere to that fact because some laws are put into place for those that are guilty yet have justified reasons for their crimes. Many cases and controversial issues are associated with crimes committed by those pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, although the final result may consist of psychiatric confinement. In other words, criminal commitment is a legal procedure by which a person found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity would be confined to a psychiatric hospital. Interestingly, even those with mental illnesses have a right to be treated fairly despite the crimes they have committed. However, the history of the insanity defense originated over a decade. There are pros and cons resulting from the insanity defense just as there are questions in the effectiveness regarding the insanity plea. In addition, positive and negative impacts can weigh heavily on those pleading the insanity defense. Therefore, it is vital to know when one should utilize the insanity defense (Cornell, 2015).

To be sure, the relevant issue to be discussed is balancing the right of defendants to not be simply thrown in a cell even if they are grossly mentally ill and the right of victims to have lucid criminals pay for their crimes rather than using a legal defense that simply does not apply to an act or the criminal who commits the act based on a totality of the evidence. To that end, there is a rich amount of literature and material in the scholarly and legal sphere that informs on how to properly strike that balance. One treatise about the subject asserts that professionals need to use a three-stage process to show the proper part of the legal responsibility/mental health spectrum that people fall upon. They note that if the three stage process is not started properly, this can directly undermine choices and assessments made as the process grinds on (Kalis & Meynen, 2014).

One way in which there is a clear delineation between truly insane acts and defendants that are "playing insane" is the use of what is known as forensic psychiatry. While forensic psychology is fairly well-known, forensic psychiatry is lesser known but has become just as important and this is especially true when talking about defendants that might or will be using the insanity defense (Meynen, 2012). While some may hold that over-analyzing mental dysfunctions can lead to wrong decisions, there are disorders where the question is extremely complex and it takes a psychiatrist to answer the question exhaustively and completely. One such mental disorder would be borderline personality disorder (BPD). It is held by one study that BPD is a "complex mental disorder that straddles the line between psychosis and neurosis" (Sisti & Caplan, 2012). That same study holds that even though BPD is a debilitating and massive disorder, the disorder alone does not "by itself provide sufficient grounds for voiding responsibility for criminal acts" (Sisti & Caplan, 2012). It would be very much like being drunk and killing someone in an accident. While the intent may not be there, there was enough lucidity and forethought involved that the acts cannot be legally excused due to the other factors involved. However, rather than a black and white system of review as it relates to extensive mental illnesses like BPD, many propose a sliding scale so as to identify when someone should be culpable and when they should not be culpable. However, this sort of "gray area" is sure to vex and anger those that are on the short end of the stick when it comes to criminal liability (i.e. justice for victims) and not being held accountable for insane acts (i.e. For criminal defendants). A black and white system would obviously be optimal but is simply not possible given the complexities involved and these complexities include the calculated actions of the defendants and their counsel (Sisti & Caplan, 2012).

However, the propensity of defendants to do whatever it takes to "get off" on a charge is not always the pattern that is seen. Whether it is because they really are insane or whether it is just because they want to rebel against everyone and everything, some people that probably should claim insanity simply do not do so and the question becomes whether that person is even competent to stand trial. Such an instance happened a bit over a decade ago in New York. There was a criminal defendant that refused the advice of counsel to claim an insanity defense and the question became that person was lucid enough to be able to aid in their own defense and whether they should stand trial due to competency issues. Of those surveyed, there was almost a dead even split between those that said he should immediately stand trial and those that said he should not stand trial in his current state. Interestingly enough, most mental health professionals were on board with him being competent while prosecutors tended to say the opposite. Regardless, it was found that, at least at the time, that New York law was far from clear as to how such situations…

Sources Used in Document:


Blau, G.L., McGinley, H., & Pasewark, R. (1993). Understanding the use of the insanity defense. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 49(3), 435-440.

Carroll, A., Scott, R., Green, B., Dalton, T., Brett, A., & McVie, N. (2009). Forensic

mental health orders: orders without borders. Australasian Psychiatry: Bulletin Of

Royal Australian And New Zealand College Of Psychiatrists, 17(1), 34-37.

Cite This Capstone Project:

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