Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Insanity Defense


"The good of the people is the greatest law"
Cicero, Roman philosopher (106-43 BC)

The insanity defense is a source of continuous disagreement among lawyers, clinicians and the general public. There is a very strong perception in America that defendants are abusing this defense to escape murder charges in the nation's courts.

Agents hold down Hinkley (TIMPIX)
Agents hold down Hinkley (TIMPIX)

On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley shot president Ronald Reagan and several of his aides on live television. Virtually the entire world saw the shooting via endless replays over the next few weeks. There was little doubt who did the shooting and how. Ronald Reagan eventually recovered, though today, we know his wounds were a lot more serious than we realized then. Press Secretary James Brady suffered severe head wounds and was confined to a wheelchair as a result of his injuries. On May 4, 1982, after a seven-week trial, during which numerous psychiatrists testified on his behalf, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). He was sent to a mental hospital in Washington D.C., where he is still confined today. The outcome of the Hinckley case sent shockwaves throughout the nation's courts. How could a man who shot the president in front of millions of people be found not guilty?

One of the cornerstones of the criminal justice system in America is the concept of mens rea, a Latin phrase that translates to "state of mind." In order for a person to be held criminally liable in the courts, our system demands that that he or she must have criminal intent or awareness of the wrongfulness of the act. If a person is mentally ill and unable to tell the difference between right and wrong, for example, then he or she cannot be held criminally culpable in our society. That principle upholds the dignity of the court and ensures those without malicious intent, such as the mentally retarded, will not be unfairly punished. Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), the British legal scholar, whose work was used as the foundation for English and American law for centuries wrote "idiots and lunatics are not chargeable for their own acts, if committed when under these incapacities" (Friedman, 1996, p. 143).

There are many false beliefs held by the public regarding the utilization of the insanity defense at criminal trials. The most widespread misperception is that NGRI pleas are commonly used by defense attorneys to benefit their clients. However, there is abundant research that proves conclusively that just the opposite is true. A study conducted in Wyoming in the early 1970s showed that the insanity defense was used in only .47% of all criminal cases (Melton, 1997, p. 187). In New Jersey, a review of 32,000 criminal cases in 1982 discovered that the defense was raised in only 52 cases, less than .2% of the total (American Psychological Association Report January 9, 1996). In New York City, the insanity defense, historically, is used less than 1 in 700 cases (American Psychological Association Report, January 9, 1996). Other studies indicate very similar findings. In almost every review on the insanity plea undertaken in America, the results are the same: this type of defense is used in the nation's courts only on very rare occasions. One such occasion that dramatized the issue of insanity was the Long Island Railroad killings in 1993 when a disturbed man, named Colin Ferguson, became front-page news in media-rich New York City.

Colin Ferguson, under arrest (AP)
Colin Ferguson, under arrest

It was December 7, 1993 when Colin Ferguson, 28, boarded a train in Long Island headed for New York City's Grand Central Station. The railroad car was packed with commuters. As the train pulled into the Mermillion Avenue station, Ferguson pulled out a semi-automatic weapon and began firing at random inside the commuter car. Several minutes later, after some courageous passengers wrestled the madman to the floor, six people were dead and 19 others seriously wounded. When Ferguson was charged in criminal court, famed attorney William Kunstler and his assistant, Ron Kuby, agreed to represent him. Kunstler and Kuby decided to use something called the "black rage" defense. They presented to the court that Ferguson, after years of living in a racist and oppressive society, was so consumed with anger that he just couldn't help killing white people. Ferguson, however, disagreed. He denied his role in the killing and said that he was framed by persons unknown.

William Kunstler, attorney (AP)
William Kunstler, attorney

Ferguson later fired his attorneys and won the right to represent himself. The court ruled that he was competent and what followed was one of the strangest criminal trials New York had ever witnessed. It was a proceeding that angered many people and brought into the public arena once again, how the law deals with the issue of insanity. Ferguson was able to question many of the victims on the stand who actually saw him do the shooting but insisted he was innocent. He rambled on endlessly in open court accusing the police, the media and the American people of conspiring against him. Kuby later said that the proof of Ferguson's insanity was that he wouldn't plead insane. He was found guilty in February, 1993 and sentenced to life without parole. "He's too crazy!" Kuby told the press (N.Y. Daily News, February 18, 1993).

Another misperception of the insanity defense is that NGRI pleas are always successful. But the reality is exactly the opposite. In the same Wyoming study mentioned previously, only one person, .99%, of those that used the defense, was acquitted. Data gathered in other studies show higher rates but considerably less than half of those who pled the insanity defense were successful. In Hawaii, between the years 1969 and 1976, less than 19% of those who pleaded insanity were acquitted (Melton, 1997, p. 188). In New Jersey during 1982, the figure was 30%. Researchers in California, Georgia, New York and Montana uncovered similar findings. Simply stated, John Hinckley was one of the very few defendants acquitted by reason of insanity. For decades, the criteria used to establish a legitimate insanity defense was very rigid. Sometimes the most bizarre behavior, even when committed in public, did not satisfy that standard. One case from the 1940s that illustrates that point was the violent and vicious tale of the "Mad Dog Espositos" in New York City.

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