"Complete madness" was first established as a defense to criminal charges by the common-law courts in late-thirteenth-century England. By the eighteenth century, the complete madness definition had evolved into the "wild beast" test. Under that test, the insanity defense was available to a person who was "totally deprived of his understanding and memory so as not to know what he [was] doing, no more than an infant, a brute, or a wild beast" (Feigl 1995, 161).
By 1840, most jurisdictions had refined the wildbeast test to cognitive insanity and supplemented that with irresistible impulse insanity. However, in 1843, a well-publicized assassination attempt in England caused Parliament to eliminate the irresistible impulse defense. Daniel M'Naghten, operating under the delusion that Prime Minister Robert Peel wanted to kill him, tried to shoot Peel but shot and killed Peel's secretary instead. Medical testimony indicated that M'Naghten was psychotic, and the court acquitted him by reason of insanity (M'Naghten's Case, 8 Eng. Rep. 718 ). In response to a public furor that followed the decision, the House of Lords ordered the Lords of Justice of the Queen's Bench to craft a new rule for insanity in the CRIMINAL LAW.
What emerged became known as the M'NAGHTEN RULE. This rule migrated to the United States within a decade of its conception, and it stood for the better part of the next century. The intent of the M'Naghten rule was to abolish the irresistible-impulse defense and to limit the insanity defense to cognitive insanity. Under the M'Naghten rule, insanity was a defense if
at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from a disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.
Through the first half of the twentieth century, the insanity defense was expanded again. Courts began to accept the theories of psychoanalysts, many of whom encouraged recognition of the irresistible-impulse defense. Many states enacted a combination of the M'Naghten rule supplemented with an irresistible-impulse defense, thereby covering both cognitive and volitional insanity.
The insanity defense reached its most permissive standard in Durham v. United States, 214 F. 2d 862 (D.C. Cir. 1954). The Durham rule excused a defendant "if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect." The Durham rule was lauded by the mental health community as progressive because it allowed psychologists and psychiatrists to contribute to the judicial understanding of insanity. But it was also criticized for placing too much trust in the opinions of mental health professionals. Within seven years of its creation, the rule had been explicitly rejected in 22 states. It is used only in New Hampshire.
In 1964, the American Law Institute (ALI) began to reassess the insanity defense in the course of promoting a new MODEL PENAL CODE. What emerged from the Model Penal Code Commission was a compromise between the narrow M'Naghten test and the generous Durham rule. The ALI test provided that a person was not responsible for criminal conduct if, at the time of the act, the person lacked "substantial capacity" to appreciate the conduct or to conform the conduct to the RULE OF LAW. The ALI test provided for both cognitive and volitional insanity. It also required only a lack of substantial capacity, less than complete impairment. The ALI version of the insanity defense was adopted by more than half the states and all but one federal circuit.
Several years later, another dramatic event led to another round of restrictions on the insanity defense. In 1981, John W. Hinckley, Jr., attempted to assassinate President RONALD REAGAN. Hinckley was prosecuted and acquitted of all charges by reason of insanity, and a resulting public outcry prompted Congress to enact legislation on the issue. In 1984, Congress passed the Insanity Defense Reform Act (Insanity Act) (18 U.S.C.A. § 17 ) to abolish the irresistible-impulse test from federal courts. Initially, Reagan had called for a total abolition of mental illness as a defense to criminal charges, but his administration backed down from this position after intense LOBBYING by various professional organizations and trade associations.
The Insanity Act also placed the burden on the defendant to prove insanity. Before the Insanity Act, federal prosecutors bore the burden of proving the defendant's sanity BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT.
Most states joined Congress in reevaluating the insanity defense after Hinckley's acquittal. The legislatures of these states modified and limited the insanity defense in many and varied ways. Some states shifted the BURDEN OF PROOF, and some limited the applicability of the defense in the same manner as Congress did. A few states abolished the defense entirely. Chief Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST, of the U.S. Supreme Court, opined in a dissent that it is "highly doubtful that DUE PROCESS requires a State to make available an insanity defense to a criminal
defendant" (Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68, 105 S. Ct. 1087, 84 L. Ed. 2d 53 ).
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