<< News Scan | Main | News Scan >>

Insanity, Law, and Science

The NYT's Room for Debate feature has five short statements on this topic:

In the three decades since the Hinckley case, brain research and brain scans have made many advances in diagnosing and categorizing mental illness. Yet this seems to have little bearing on how society deals with insanity and culpability in the legal arena.

What has been learned in the decades since the Hinckley case? Should a better medical understanding of mental illness alter our legal definitions of insanity? Or is the insanity defense rooted in principles or traditions that actually don't have much to do with medicine?
The participants are Alan Dershowitz, James Whitman, William Carpenter, David Bruck, and yours truly. 

Update:  A sixth piece, by Beatriz Luna, has been added.
Here is my contribution:

The insanity defense is more precisely a plea of "not guilty by reason of insanity." This phrasing puts the emphasis where it belongs, on whether the defendant is guilty. Whether he is "insane" is relevant only to the extent it bears on whether he is guilty.

Guilt is a legal and moral construct, not a medical one. The traditional test is whether the defendant was able to understand the nature of the act and understand that it was wrong. This test was established by an English court in a 19th century assassination case and reestablished by Congress after John Hinckley was acquitted for shooting President Reagan. It remains the proper legal and moral test. A person who understands what he is doing and that it is wrong but does it anyway is morally responsible for his act.

Advances in brain science are relevant to application of the test to the extent they clarify what the defendant is capable of understanding, but in reality they have not clarified that much. PET scans make pretty pictures that impress juries, but the experts who point to a red spot and claim that the spot means the defendant could not help himself are engaging in a kind of high tech phrenology that is not much more valid than the old kind.

Schizophrenia is a terrible illness, and in some cases it is a powerful mitigating circumstance to be considered in sentencing. That is why the Unabomber was sentenced to life and not death. However, very few people are so split off from reality as to be deemed innocent of crimes of violence. The insanity defense rarely succeeds, and that is how it should be. Nothing we have learned about the brain in the last three decades changes that.

Leave a comment

Monthly Archives