July 20, 2012. Aurora, Colorado. Innocent people are enjoying a screening of the movie Batman: the Dark Knight Rises when shots begin to ring out. When James Holmes was finished, 12 people lay dead and 70 more injured. With over 142 criminal charges against him, his lawyers had no reason to attempt to prove he was not responsible for the crime. Instead, they attempted to find sufficient evidence for the Insanity Defense, which could save their client’s life.
According to Cornell Law, “The insanity defense refers to a defense that a defendant can plead in a criminal trial. In an insanity defense, the defendant admits the action, but asserts a lack of culpability based on a mental illness. The insanity defense is classified as an excuse defense, rather than a justification defense.” This ruling has existed within the United States since the 18th century, though the means by which it is accepted have evolved greatly. During the 18th century the basis by which it was ruled greatly varied, as some states attempted to understand if the defendant knew the difference between good and evil, while others asked if the defendant “knew what he did”. By the 19th century, however, citizens began to understand and accept that the decision ultimately lay in the hands of the jury.
Though this ruling is longstanding in our law systems, many dispute the nature and necessity of this ruling within the legal system. Due to varied views on the issue, some states choose not to incorporate it into their courts. These states include Idaho, Kansas, Utah, and Montana, though they allow a guilty but insane verdict. The guilty but insane verdict ensures physiatric treatment for those suffering, but forces them to serve the punishment for their crimes, as well. Although these people do receive this treatment, the conditions in many prisons will often interfere with their treatment and cause more damage to their mental states.
In 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. He attempted to recreate certain scenes from the film Taxi Driver with actress Jodie Foster, whom he hoped to impress with the assassination. His case sparked varied viewpoints around the Insanity Defense as he was acquitted of all accounts and sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Researchers Valerie P. Hans and Dan Slater surveyed 434 Delaware men and women about their opinions on the case. They found that almost everyone they interviewed had negative feelings about the insanity acquittal and did not believe that he was actually insane. They also found that most people did not understand what the requirements were to receive the verdict or how long it stood, as neither was made clear in the reports regarding the case. Additionally, evidence showed that the more trust people had in psychiatrists, the more they were likely to think the ruling was fair. They also found older participants were more likely to favor treatment instead of punishment.
As the number of cases of gun violence, similar to those of John Hinckley Jr and James Holmes, continue to rise worldwide, this defense has become more and more relevant. People will often connect cases of gun violence with mental illness, however some evidence does not necessarily support that many people who commit violent acts involving firearms are mental ill. According to Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, “Individuals suffering from mental illnesses are actually three times more likely than the average person to be victims of violence, as they are more vulnerable”. He argues that due to the often problematic or traumatic pasts of people struggling with serious mental illness, they are more often easy targets of crimes involving firearms. Despite multiple experts’ studies, many still believe that gun violence and mental illness are often connected. Thus, The Insanity Defense poses a difficult question to the judge and jury: should one pay the consequences for firearm-related crimes regardless of their mental state or should people who struggle with mental illness be given the opportunity to receive treatment in a mental institution? Would the acceptance of this defense in such incidents encourage similar crimes to occur again?
As more people have become educated about The Insanity Defense, it has become a viable defense in more and more cases. However, many ask if the defense should result in clemency from punishment or not. Should defendants still be required to serve the punishment for their actions alongside others convicted of similar acts? According to Dr. Christine Montross of Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, “When a mentally ill person comes into contact with the criminal justice system, the decision about whether that person belongs in jail or in the hospital is rarely a clinical one…members of minority groups, and people with a history of law-enforcement involvement are shuttled into the correctional system in disproportionate numbers… less likely than their more privileged counterparts to be adequately treated for their psychiatric illnesses”. Therefore, should the primary objective of the state be to support these individuals until they are able to reintegrate themselves into society OR should criminals be forced to serve the punishment for their crimes regardless of their mental states? In order for our country to move forward as a united nation that is able to limit the amount of criminal activity, we must find a more dependable way of answering this question.