Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Insanity Defense

The Problem With Psychiatrists

"A psychiatrist is a fellow who asks you a lot of expensive questions your wife asks you for nothing"  --Joey Adams, U.S. comedian.

America's standards for the insanity defense, during the period 1954-1984, received a great deal of criticism because of cases like Torsney and White. Psychiatrists were given a powerful voice in the nation's courts and the results could often be infuriating to the public. Psychologists, whose profession revolves around the endless ambiguities of the human mind, were asked to make decisive judgments about an individual after seeing a prisoner only once or twice. This was absurd according to many people. Sometimes psychologists treat their patients for years in dozens of sessions without coming to a solid conclusion or understanding of their mental problems And those judgments by court appointed psychiatrists could have a tremendous impact on a criminal trial and its outcome. "Psychiatrists and psychologists are often put in the same position as economists who are asked to predict things that no one is capable of predicting. Those with the honesty and realism to say they can't do it are likely to be brushed aside..." writes Thomas Sowell in The Insane Insanity Defense (Sowell, 1994, p. A10).

Psychiatrists also have been known to slant their findings toward the side that pays them. This is a dangerous tendency that corrupts testimony and blurs the truth in front of a jury who is already suspicious of "expert" psychological testimony. That suspicion has been fostered by some spectacular failures and abuses by psychiatrists who explain the behavior of criminals with the twisting idiom of clinical definitions. And psychiatrists themselves are notorious for their disagreements on the same issues. For every psychiatrist that testifies on the stability of a defendant, another one will quickly follow who will testify to a completely opposite conclusion. Frequently, there is no common consensus among psychiatrists, a fact that has devalued the profession in the eyes of the public and lessened the impact of their testimony in a court of law. What does it matter if a defendant had a less than perfect childhood? How does that relate to a vicious murder that may have been committed twenty or thirty years later? Or as Thomas Maeder writes in Crime and Madness, "It (psychiatric testimony) can send him to prison, or send him to a hospital, or put him on probation, and what is it that you need to know to make that decision? Do you need to know that the person had a poor upbringing, that he masturbated as a child? Just what is it that you need to know?" (Maeder, 1985, p. 100).

There is also the natural danger that clinicians mostly identify with those on their own economic and social level. When dealing with patients who are much different than themselves, psychiatrists can be oblivious to their problems. One forensic psychologist went so far as to say: "I hate to say this, but I don't like to work with poor people...They are talking about stuff that doesn't interest me" (Rowe, 1984, p. 325). Undoubtedly, few doctors could be as honest. Another common problem is forensic psychologists are paid professionals and therefore, usually accessible to only the wealthy class. Such a case was the strange story of John du Pont, heir to the du Pont family fortune and the wealthiest man ever to be charged with murder in American history.