A Brief and Incomplete History of the Insanity Plea
If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that a key word, and an important word, often used is balance. The criminal justice system works at its best when balance has been obtained between the accused and investigators, between prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Balance is never harder to obtain than when something that needs to be subjective is made to be objective instead. Said a different way, it’s hard when an issue that should be treated on a case-by-case basis is boxed in by a one-size-fits-all law. One primary example of this is the insanity plea.
Now, it needs to be said upfront that most Central Virginians reading this, especially those in need of a defense attorney, will likely not be utilizing the insanity plea during their legal troubles. However, everyone benefits from a law that has found balance for all of its citizens. Has it done that?
Insanity and Dorothy Talbye:
One of the earliest instances, in all likelihood, of a defendant who could have claimed insanity was Dorothy Talbye. In 1638, she went from being a “respected member of the community” to a troubled woman. She claimed that divine revelation was telling her that she needed to kill her husband and daughter. She failed to kill her husband, but she succeeded in killing her daughter.
When she was placed on trial, the question was simple. Did Dorothy kill her daughter? The answer was obviously yes. Despite her obvious mental deficiencies, Dorothy was hung for her crime. Her mental issues were not even considered in her favor because no insanity plea existed during that time.
Insanity and Harry Thaw:
Phoebe Judge and WUNC recently told the story of Harry Thaw. Thaw committed murder in front of hundreds of witnesses when he shot and killed Stanford White in a public theater. He was found not guilty when he claimed that a “brainstorm” led him to do it. It was not called an insanity plea at the time, even though that was what it was. Instead, his lawyer gave it a better name – “Dementia Americana.”
Thaw was jealous and angry of White. White, years before, had raped Thaw’s wife when she was a minor. Seeing White in the same theater led to the “brainstorm,” his temporary insanity that drove him to murdering White. Early in 1907, Thaw was found not guilty. A precursor to the formal insanity plea that was to come later had worked.
Insanity and John Hinckley Jr.:
Possibly the most famous insanity plea was that of John Hinckley Jr.’s after he shot President Ronald Reagan. After Hinckley shot the President for all to see, he was found not guilty after meeting the then-legal standard for insanity by claiming that he was trying to impress actress Jodie Foster, someone with whom he had no personal relationship. Congress decided after this not guilty verdict that the law was out of balance toward defendants and needed to act.
That led to the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984. While the burden of proof for insanity pleas had fluctuated throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s, this law brought things to where they are now. It did two things. It heightened the standard for being able to make this plea by requiring defendants to demonstrate a severe mental disease or defect. It also switched ownership of the burden of proof. Instead of requiring prosecutors to prove that the defendant is sane, defendants must prove that they are insane.
Also, case law further dictates how the insanity defense must work. In White v. Commonwealth, 272 Va. 619 (2006), the Supreme Court of Virginia provided the following summary of the defense:
"Virginia has long recognized the common law defense of insanity. According to Virginia case law, a criminal defendant is presumed to have been sane at the time of the commission of a criminal act. However, under the M'Naghten test for insanity, recognized in Virginia, the defendant may prove that at the time of the commission of the act, he was suffering from a mental disease or defect such that he did not know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know it, he did not know what he was doing was wrong.
The first portion of M'Naghten relates to an accused who is psychotic to an extreme degree. It assumes an accused who, because of mental disease, did not know the nature and quality of his act; he simply did not know what he was doing. For example, in crushing the skull of a human being with an iron bar, he believed that he was smashing a glass jar. The latter portion of M'Naghten relates to an accused who knew the nature and quality of his act. He knew what he was doing; he knew that he was crushing the skull of a human being with an iron bar. However, because of mental disease, he did not know that what he was doing was wrong. He believed, for example, that he was carrying out a command from God."
Has this law brought the concept of the insanity plea into balance? Or did Hinckley’s public act create an overreaction and overcorrection by Congress? Ironically, the answer to that is as subjective as the issue itself. If it is out of balance, it is not the only place, which is why a good defense attorney is always key when you need defending. If this is you, call or e-mail today for a free consultation!
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