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  • Pleading insane during a trial can be highly  controversial. But what does it mean to be  

  • criminally insane? Could someone who is criminally  insane get away with anything they want?

  • At the most basic level someone is considered  criminally insane if they have a mental illness  

  • that makes it impossible for them to understand  their actions when committing a crime. Another  

  • component of this is if the person's illness  prevents them from knowing that their actions  

  • are wrong. This breaks the criminally  insane plea down into two categories.  

  • The first is that the person's mental illness  literally causes them to not know what they're  

  • doing. This could be due todisease such as schizophrenia.

  • The other category is people who knew what  they were doing when they committed the crime,  

  • but did not see it as morally  wrong. This could happen with  

  • mental diseases that cause someone to have  a complete lack of empathy for others.

  • Either way, to be considered criminally  insane, the defendant must plea guilty  

  • to committing the crime, but prove they were  not culpable because of their mental illness.  

  • The evidence needed to prove someone is criminally  insane varies by state. But in all cases,  

  • the defense must prove that they were  either unaware of what they were doing,  

  • or that they could not see it as morally  wrong because of their mental state.

  • It is also interesting to note that the  definition of being legally insane is not  

  • determined by a psychologist, but by the courtPsychologists and medical professions do play a  

  • role in the analysis, but the designation of being  criminally insane is given by the court itself.  

  • Someone can even be considered  psychotic, yet not meet the legal  

  • criteria for being criminally insane. We  will definitely see a case of this later.

  • So when is someone considered criminally insane?  

  • It all depends on the state they are being  tried in. Some of the criteria may shock you.

  • In most states the courts adhere to what is  called the M'Naghten Test. This test is used to  

  • assess the thought process and perceptions of the  person at the time they committed the murder. So,  

  • when using the M'Naghten Test the defendant  does not need to be currently insane,  

  • they only needed to be cognitively  impaired during the time of the crime.

  • This means that someone could seem  completely normal in the courtroom,  

  • but still be declared criminally insane if  their mental illness impaired their reasoning,  

  • or drove their actions, while committing  the crime. In some states such as Arizona  

  • the courts revised the test to remove  certain phrases. This was done to ensure  

  • that someone who knew what they were doingbut did not believe it to be morally wrong  

  • because of their mental illness, could  also be considered criminally insane.

  • Therefore, someone could be in complete  control of their actions and know exactly  

  • what they were doing when they committed  the crime, but if their morality was  

  • impaired by their mental illness, they  could be considered criminally insane.  

  • This would lead to an acquittal of the charges  if the M'Naghten Test was being employed.

  • Another test used by about 20 states in the  U.S. is the The American Law Institute Model,  

  • or Brawner Rule. This test determines whether  when the person committed the crime they lacked  

  • the capacity to appreciate the criminality  of their actions. Of course this also must  

  • be connected to some sort of mental disease or  illness. The caveat is that this rule excludes  

  • mental illnesses that cause the defendant to  commit the same crime over and over during the  

  • course of their life. Therefore, if someone  is tried in a state using the Brawner Rule,  

  • and their mental illness causes them to repeatedly  commit the same crime, they cannot plead insanity.

  • The final test is only used by one state  and that's the Live Free or Die state  

  • of New Hampshire. The test they use is called  the Durham Test. This test only requires the  

  • defense to prove that the criminal act was  a product of a mental disease or illness,  

  • which allows the definition of  criminal insanity to be much  

  • broader. The Durham Test requires the defense  to prove a lot less than in other states.

  • You may not be surprised that this makes  pleading criminal insanity slightly  

  • easier in New Hampshire. Also, some defense  attorneys in the state interpret the Durham Test  

  • to include any mental illness, which makes what  is considered criminally insane much more vague.

  • Regardless of which state the defendant is  in, the burden of proof is on the defendant,  

  • not the prosecution when seeking a plea  of criminal insanity. The defendant must  

  • prove that they had a mental illnesswhich caused them to be unaware they  

  • were committing a crime at the time. This  is the exact opposite of a normal court  

  • case where the prosecution must prove beyondreasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

  • At this point you may be wondering who has  succeeded in pleading criminal insanity,  

  • and what their crimes were. In today's  court system it is incredibly hard to  

  • win an insanity plea. In fact, it has  one of the lowest success rates out  

  • of all criminal defenses. But  that wasn't always the case.

  • The first known assassination attempt onUnited States president was by Richard Lawrence  

  • who tried to kill Andrew Jackson in 1835. He  fired two pistols at the back of the president,  

  • but they both misfired. Lawrence was  tackled to the ground and arrested.  

  • In his trial the jury learned that Lawrence was  a house painter, and may have been subjected to  

  • harmful chemicals during his work that made him  mentally unstable. They found him criminally  

  • insane and he was sent to several different  mental institutions before he passed away 1861.

  • On October 14, 1912 John Schrank shot  President Theodore Roosevelt while he  

  • was campaigning in Milwaukee, WisconsinThe bullet struck Roosevelt in the chest,  

  • but he miraculously survivedWhen he was questioned by police,  

  • Schrank declared that President William McKinley  had come to him in a dream and told him that  

  • he had been assassinated by RooseveltSo, Schrank was on a mission of revenge.

  • Schrank also said: "I looked upon his plan to  start a third party as a danger to the country; my  

  • knowledge of history, gained through much readingconvinced me that Colonel Roosevelt was engaged  

  • in a dangerous undertaking. I was convinced that  if he was defeated at the Fall election he would  

  • again cry 'Thief' and that his action would  plunge the country into a bloody civil war.”

  • Schrank truly believed that the only  thing he could do to save the country  

  • was to assassinate Roosevelt. The judge  determined he was criminally insane,  

  • and Schrank spent the rest  of his life in an asylum.

  • You may be thinking that there is no way a third  person attempting to assassinate a president would  

  • be declared criminally insanebut you'd  be wrong. It seems like if you attempt to  

  • assassinate a president and fail, the way  to go is pleading insanity as a defense.

  • In 1981 John Hinckley Jr. tried to  kill President Ronald Reagan. His  

  • insanity plea was bolstered by the fact that  shortly before his assassination attempt,  

  • Hinckley wrote a letter that explained  he was going to shoot the president to  

  • impress actress Jodie Foster. He clearly had  a deeply unhealthy obsession with the actress.

  • He was found criminally insane during his  trial. However, this led to public outrage  

  • over the verdict and led to the Insanity  Defense Reform Law of 1984. This law greatly  

  • modified the process for pleading insane  and made it much more rigorous. Hinckley  

  • was sent to an asylum, but was allowed  to make periodic visits to his mother.

  • With the reforms put in place after Hinckley's  case it became much more difficult for someone  

  • to win an insanity plea. For example, in 1991  Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted of murdering,  

  • mutilating, and cannibalizing 15 young  men. At his trial he admitted to the  

  • killings and put in for an insanity  plea. The court rejected his plea,  

  • and his case was sent to trial where he  was convicted as a legally sane individual.  

  • He was sentenced to 15 consecutive life  sentences in prison with no chance of parole.

  • The treatment of Dahmer's case prompted many  to believe the end of the insanity defense had  

  • finally come. The result of the case may have  been in direct response to the acquittal of  

  • Hinckley during his trial. If the defense could  not prove that Jeffrey Dahmer was legally insane,  

  • it seemed that no one would ever be able  to plea insanity and win ever again.

  • However, this was not the case. In 1994 Lorena  Bobbitt was declared criminally insane during  

  • her trial for cutting off her husband's penis  and throwing it out the car window while driving  

  • down a Virginia highway. Bobbitt said the reason  she did this was because of years of emotional,  

  • physical, and sexual abuse by her husbandAfter being found criminally insane she was  

  • sent to a mental hospital for five months  before the judge ordered her released.

  • We know that in order to be considered  criminally insane the defense must prove  

  • that their mental illness made them unable  to comprehend what they were doing during  

  • the time of the crime. From the stories of  people who were found criminally insane,  

  • most were sent to mental hospitalsBut is this always the case?

  • The law says that if someone is found criminally  insane they should immediately be committed to a  

  • suitable facility. That is unless the court  finds that releasing the person back into  

  • society would pose no substantial risk of  bodily harm to themselves or others. They  

  • must also pose no risk of damaging another's  property as a result of their mental illness.  

  • If this is the case, the person will be set free.

  • If someone is found criminally insane  and they do pose a risk to others,  

  • they are handed over to the Attorney General  who must find them a suitable institution to  

  • reside in. After the Attorney General does  their job, the person is surrendered to the  

  • State who is in charge of custody, careand treatment of the individual. Once the  

  • State deems that the person can safely be  released back into society they will be.

  • This does not always happen, and some people who  are found criminally insane will spend the rest  

  • of their lives in a mental health institutionWinning a plea of insanity is incredibly difficult  

  • because of the strict rules and laws around what  constitutes being legally insane. The defendant  

  • must prove without a doubt that during the time  they committed their crime they had a mental  

  • illness that impaired their judgment, or made  them unaware that they were doing anything wrong.

  • Now watchJournalist Goes  Undercover At Insane Asylum  

  • Becomes Prisoner.” Or check out  “Average Day in an Insane Asylum.”

Pleading insane during a trial can be highly  controversial. But what does it mean to be  

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What Does it Mean to be Criminally Insane

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    Summer posted on 2021/09/06
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