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Excuse: Insanity

Hinckley And Its Aftermath

The insanity acquittal of John W. Hinckley for the attempted murder of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 galvanized the American public in a way that led directly to the reversal of 150 years of study and understanding of the complexities of psychological behavior and the relationship between mental illness and certain violent acts. The public's outrage over a jurisprudential system that could allow a defendant who shot an American president on national television to plead "not guilty" (for any reason) became a river of fury after the jury's verdict was announced.

Sensational trials such as Hinckley's consume the hearts and minds of the American public. They reflect our basic dissatisfaction with the perceived incompatibility of the due process and crime control models of criminal law, and with the notion that psychiatric "excuses" can allow a "guilty" defendant to "beat a rap" and escape punishment. Such dissatisfaction leads to a predictable response, especially when the defendant—like Hinckley—is perceived as one not sufficiently "like us" so as to warrant empathy or sympathy. As Loren Roth has suggested, when a "wrong verdict" is entered in a sensational trial, the American public may simply be nothing more than a "bad loser" (Perlin, Borderline, at 1380).

Members of Congress responded quickly to the public's outrage by introducing twenty-six separate pieces of legislation designed to limit, modify, severely shrink, or abolish the insanity defense; the debate on these bills illuminates with clarity the character of the legislative decisionmaking process. Statements by legislators introducing these bills or by Reagan Administration spokespersons supporting them reflected the fears and superstitions that have traditionally animated the insanity debate, as well as the public's core ambivalence about mentally disabled criminal defendants.

The legislation ultimately enacted by Congress—legislation that closely comported with the public's moral feelings—returned the insanity defense to status quo ante 1843, the year of M'Naghten. Besides relocating the burden of proof in insanity trials to defendants (18 U.S.C. § 17), establishing strict procedures for the hospitalization and release of defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity (18 U.S.C. § 4243 et seq.), and severely limiting the scope of expert testimony in insanity cases (Federal Rules of Evidence 704 (b)), the IDRA discarded the ALI–Model Penal Code test, and adopted a more restrictive version of M'Naghten, by specifying that the level of mental disease or defect that must be shown to qualify be "severe" (18 U.S.C. § 17(a)).

Prior to the Hinckley trial, the burden of proof in all federal courts (and in about half the states) was on the prosecution to prove a defendant's sanity beyond a reasonable doubt. Many observers placed the "blame" for the jury's subsequent acquittal on this allocation, and the question of burden shifting became a major subject of controversy at the subsequent Congressional insanity defense hearings. The IDRA responded to these concerns and placed the burden of proof in insanity defense cases on the defendant, and specified a burden of proof of "clear and convincing evidence."

This change was significant for two main reasons. First, symbolically, it underscored Congress's dissatisfaction with a system that appeared to make it "easier" for jurors to acquit in insanity cases. Second, empirically, by making the quantum greater than a preponderance (previously, the standard allocation in jurisdictions where the burden was on the defendant to prove insanity), it gave researchers the opportunity to investigate the "real life" impact of both the burden shift (as to party) and the especially heavy quantum of proof that the defendant will be responsible to prove.

The states quickly followed the lead of the federal government. Two-thirds of all states reevaluated the defense; as a result, twelve states adopted the guilty but mentally ill (GBMI) test, seven narrowed the substantive test, sixteen shifted the burden of proof, and twenty-five tightened release provisions in the cases of those defendants found to be NGRI. Three states adopted legislation that purported to abolish the defense, but actually retained a mens rea exception.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawExcuse: Insanity - Development Of Insanity Defense Doctrine, Post-m'naghten Developments., Hinckley And Its Aftermath