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Criminal Law – Insanity Defence

Colleen is an attorney in the United States, and a solicitor on the roll in England and Wales.

Manea, or Mania, is the Greek Goddess of insanity. In Roman mythology she is the Goddess of the dead.

Manea, or Mania, is the Greek Goddess of insanity. In Roman mythology she is the Goddess of the dead.

Historical Overview

“The criminal law is an embodiment of society’s moral vision. .. “Finding a defendant guilty is not only a factual judgement; it also constitutes a moral condemnation of the person. In our tradition, moral blame cannot attach where the act was not the result of a free choice.

The verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity is nothing more than an expression of that moral intuition.” David L Bazelon.

Recognition of this defence has been a fairly recent development in the history of criminal law. According to early English common law, murders committed as a result of a mental disorder were deemed worthy of a royal pardon.

Towards the end of the 13th century, madness was regarded as a complete defence. This absolute erasure of guilt was premised on the wild beast theory, a belief that anyone suffering from insanity to the point of committing murder was only one step removed from the fiercest predator of the forest or jungle.

Given our social framework, such an idea seems demeaning. Still, in scientific terms, our current standards for the defence of insanity do not differ as widely from our forebears’ perceptions to the degree we might think. In scientific terms, the amygdala, an almond-shaped segment towards the back of the brain, contains those survival instincts possessed by other species.

One major function is to provide any living creature with the adrenaline needed to flee, stay and battle danger head-on, or even pursue its foe. Indeed, those suffering from anxiety or panic attacks are being bombarded by a thunderstorm of adrenaline.

As the brain-stem cannot distinguish between real and imagined threats, a delusion can impact upon the brain with the strength of a genuine menace. This fact is applicable to the following case.

Robert Peel

Robert Peel

The M’Naghten Rule: To What Extent Is It Valid?

The term “Bobbies” to denote a British police officer derived from Sir Robert Peel having organised a London police force, near Scotland Yard, in 1829. Ironically, it would be an attempt on his life which would initiate the legal defence of insanity. Later, in 1843, during the time Peel served as prime minister of England, Scottish woodcutter Daniel M’Naghten developed the conviction that Peel was conducting a personal vendetta against him.

Thus, in an effort to free himself from Peel’s perceived harassment, M’Naghten travelled from Glasgow to London, intent on assassinating him.

On that day, Peel was meant to head a parade of carriages during a formal procession. For reasons remaining unknown, Peel chose to ride in Queen Victoria’s carriage. Oblivious of this sudden decision, aiming his gun at the window of the carriage intended for Peel, M’Naghten inadvertently killed Peel’s secretary, Edward Drummond.

Upon his arrest, he claimed his attempt upon Peel’s life to have been justified in that, “The Tories (political party) in my city follow and persecute me wherever I go, and have entirely destroyed my peace of mind. They do everything in their power to harass and persecute me; in fact, they wish to murder me.”

The M’Naghten case presented the British courts with a conundrum. Up to this point, insanity, when considered at all, was dealt with in common law terms. To some degree, the defence had expanded to encompass the influence of the church upon the moral sense of good and evil. Still, the definition remained ambiguous.

In 1843, Freud’s work lay nearly a century in the future. Still, early psychological theories had begun to be heard. One early theory stated the human mind could not be separated into distinct compartments. A flaw in one part of a personality could infiltrate other avenues of the brain.

Thus, the judge in the M’Naghten case told the jury, “The question to be determined is whether, at the time the act in question was committed, the defendant must have suffered from such a defect of reason to the extent of being unaware of what he was doing, did not know the nature and quality of the act, or did not understand he was doing wrong.

Daniel M'Naghten

Daniel M'Naghten

The judge went on to state if they believed that “the prisoner was not sensible, at the time he committed this act, he was violating the laws of both God and man, then he would be entitled to a verdict in his favour.

The jury acquitted M’Naghten, based on their belief that his idea regarding Peel, while delusional, had interwoven itself into his mind to the point of becoming a reality.

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While this ruling might have become implemented into English law, the pivotal royal powers of its time determined to render it stillborn. Queen Victoria herself, having been the recent target of an assassination attempt, led the public furore against the incorporation of such a rule.

Shortly after the trial, Judges from various parts of England were summoned to debate the validity of this decision. Before convening, they were left in no doubt as to their expected finding.

Therefore, after an appropriate amount of time, they returned a determination to treat the M’Naghten verdict as a one-time fiasco. Still, despite this effort to defeat the rule, this panel succeeded only in holding the principle in abeyance.

Many jurisdictions throughout the English-speaking world still recognise and reflect aspects of its foundation. Nearly half of the jurisdictions in the U.S. base their insanity defence upon this rule.

Later in this article, we will return to other tests meant to determine the validity of the insanity.

For now, we will leap nearly a century and a half to a case, in many ways, akin to that of M’Naghten, to the 1982 case of U.S. V. Hinckley.

The Greatest Love Offering In The World: Wooing By Assassination

On the afternoon of March 30, 1981, having tracked the president Ronald Reagan’s travelling schedule, John Hinckley Jr. shot several bullets at the president in an attempt to kill him. This effort might have succeeded, had not the bullet that hit Reagan ricocheted off the side of the presidential vehicle wounding him in the chest from which he fully recovered.

As in the M’Naghten case, the president’s press secretary, James Brady, received a far more severe wound than did Hinckley’s target. A further bullet entered Brady’s head, permanently paralysing the right side of his body and impairing his ability to speak. Indeed, the gravity of these injuries led to “the Brady Bill”, rendering the rules of gun control a good deal more stringent.

The Man Behind The Gun: Who Was John Hinckley?

According to his parents’ joint memoir, Hinckley had always been a loner, finding it difficult to form friendships, and failing to find a girlfriend. For this reason, they had been glad when, after his move to California, in his first attempt to live on his own, he had written to them regularly regarding his girlfriend, Lynn Collins. Letters between Hinckley and his parents had encompassed the vicissitudes of this relationship.

In court, to his parents’ surprise and sorrow, they learned that this bond had been completely fictitious. The fabrication seems to be linked to a letter to his parents written to the lonely protagonist in the film Taxi-driver.

During his time near Hollywood, Hinckley viewed this film at least 15 times. Here, after several failed efforts, the protagonist gains, or imagines he has, gained the love of a child prostitute played by Jodie Foster via killing a political figure.

Obsessed by Ms. Foster, Hinckley took up residence near the Yale University campus where she was a student. Having signed up for a writing course, he left several poems and notes under the door of her dorm room. Receiving no response, he obtained her telephone number and called her. During brief conversations, Ms. Foster made clear, in a courteous but definite way, her refusal to meet him.

Following this rebuff, Hinckley felt impelled to resort to his alternative courtship strategy- the killing of the president.

Once the attempt had been made, Hinckley was quickly captured. During his trial, the conflicting views between various experts testifying to whether or not Hinckley’s delusions and behaviour reached the threshold of insanity left the jury bewildered.

The judge instructed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty, unless they could determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Hinckley had been sane at the time of the attempted assassination. Unable to agree on this point, the jury determined him to have been “not guilty by reason of insanity.

Hinckley, like M’Naghten, acted due to a delusion. In addition, he was well aware of what he was doing, that the act he was committing was wrong, as well as the nature and quality of his act. In order to forestall such a finding into American law, nearly half of American jurisdictions rewrote that part of their criminal code in order to conform, in varying degrees, to the rule set forth in M’Naghten. As a result of the jury’s finding, Hinckley was consigned to a mental health facility.

Ian Brady & Myra Hindley

Ian Brady & Myra Hindley

Mad Or Bad: Is A Hospital Room Or Prison Cell The Proper Environment?

At this writing, a recent debate has centred on Ian Brady, who, with Myra Hindley, killed 5 children during 1963-1965, in what became known as “the moors murders, due to their proximity to the Saddleworth moors near Manchester England. In 1966, Brady and Hindley were sentenced to life imprisonment. (Hindley died in prison in 2002, so has no further relevance here.)

In 1985, Brady was declared insane and sent to Ashworth, a top security psychiatric hospital. Some 15 years later, he decided he wished to return to prison, presumably due to its somewhat less restrictive conditions. He claimed that at his original trial he had feigned insanity in order to obtain hospitalisation.

This time, however, the system could not be persuaded. Determining him to be truly insane, a mental health tribunal held that he would remain in hospital because he needed a level of care unavailable in a prison environment.

Therefore, Brady will end his days in a setting he once chose. Even his wish to commit suicide, which would be allowed in prison by self-starvation, is thwarted in that the mental health act requires that when in a psychiatric hospital one will be force-fed.

Robert Maudsley

Robert Maudsley

A Locked Universe

French writer Sidonie Colette, renowned for the psychological insights conveyed in her work, has written:

“The wily lunatic is lost if through the narrowest crack he allows a sane eye to peer into his locked universe.”

It is almost impossible to imagine a finer encapsulation of the current life of Robert Maudsley. This killer, imprisoned for life, craves confinement in a psychiatric facility with intensity equal to Brady’s zeal to be transferred to the prison system.

Maudsley, born in 1953, was the last of 12 children. His growing years included a stay in an orphanage. Taken home by his parents, he was subjected to continuous beatings and at least one rape. Indeed, he would later state that, “if I had killed my parents in 1970, those people I did kill need not have died.”

Given his later aberrant behaviour, any statements dealing with cause and effect must be scrutinised with some caution. Still, the fact of his first two victims having been linked to child molestation may indicate coercion of this kind upon him during his boyhood.

At any rate, during his teens, Maudsley became a rent boy in order to support himself and to acquire those drugs to which he had become addicted. In 1973, he garroted a renter of his services, after this man had shown him photos of himself engaged in child abuse. Having told a psychiatrist he was hearing voices, the court committed Maudsley to a hospital for the criminally insane.

At some point during his stay in this hospital, Maudsley learned that a fellow patient had been convicted of child molestation. Obtaining assistance from an inmate he had befriended, he found a means of killing this patient, after having tortured him for 9 hours.

This crime resulted in a trial, requiring a fresh set of psychiatric evaluations. The results of these reports were such as to send Maudsley to prison. Once there, detesting prison life and yearning to return to his hospital, Maudsley killed two fellow inmates.

Reporting this to the guards, he felt sure the courts would revert to his original sentence of criminal insanity, thereby ordering his return to hospitalisation.

This was not to be. Like Brady in the above-mentioned case, Maudsley’s manipulation of the system had reached its end. His last two killings had reinforced the decision that his needed habitat was not only prison, but an extraordinary degree of seclusion within its walls. In 1983, he was placed in a special cell constructed for him, whereby his needs can be met by minimal contact with prison staff.

Maudsley’s cell is built largely of perspex and glass, in order to enable guards to observe him from the utmost distance. His food is delivered through a slit in the door. The furniture is made of cardboard, while his bed is built from bricks and cement. Allowed to leave his cell for one hour of exercise per day, he is accompanied by six guards.

Post-Natal Depression: When Hormones Go Awry

Post-natal depression remains, at this writing, an area needing far more clinical exploration. Still, court documents dating back to the Edwardian era note depression in cases where mothers have killed very young children.

Still, observations provided by prison officials and statements made by the defendants themselves can be seen as indicators of this type of depression.

Perhaps society, at that time, could not accept the idea of a mother killing her child unless she suffered from a mental imbalance. In most such cases, a verdict of insanity was sought as an alternative to the gallows or the brutalities of prison life.

Hospitals often proved more productive in that they taught women skills which would facilitate return to their communities.

Broadmoor lunatic asylum for the criminally insane was among the most progressive. Once a woman had mastered a skill such as sewing or other craft, her ability and enhanced self-esteem were viewed as strong indicators of her success as a potentially wage-earning member of society.

While such terminology lay in the future, the concepts were similar to those held today in both our prisons and hospitals. Our next three cases are examples.

The Drowning Of Sidney Tucker

On August 8, 1906, Maud Tucker was found insane after the killing of her infant son, Sidney. She drowned the child by filling a large pan, denoted a “copper” with water, placing her baby inside it, and then setting its lid on top.

Once she had told her husband, a constable and physician were summoned. Still, despite attempts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the child’s system had been far too weakened to benefit from any assistance.

Brought to the police station, and charged with her son’s murder, she said she was unable to look after the child, and she would like to die. Further diagnosis confirmed that she was suffering from depression and mental disease; hence not responsible for her actions.

However; although suffering from these disorders she was deemed to be able to understand questions and plead.

She was found guilty of murder, but of unsound mind at the time. She was detained at His Majesty's pleasure and also sent to Broadmoor. She remained there until evaluated as worthy to resume a place in the world from which her crime had exiled her.

Clara Alice White 1912 Broadmoor lunatic asylum for the criminally insane

Clara Alice White 1912 Broadmoor lunatic asylum for the criminally insane

Ingestion Of Hydrochloric Acid

In 1912 Clara Alice White was charged with the murder of her two children Patrick John White aged 36 months and Lilian May White aged 23 months.

Six months before the deed, Clara’s husband and her elder daughter had left the home. Shortly after her new partner Walter Risley moved into the household. He was injured and unable to work, and although he was supporting the family via his workplace accident pay; the payments had stopped and they had fallen behind with the rent payable to the landlord.

Walter’s evidence held that: Clara was a good mother, but had complained of pains in the head and depression and would forget what she was doing. She became very worried about her future security and was distraught all day. It was after dinner that day that the children became troublesome.

I went and lay down and went to sleep; it was about an hour later that I was awakened. Clara was screaming “I have done it” she was hysterical. I ran downstairs and I could smell spirit of salts. I saw the children rolling about on the floor in agony and their mouths were streaming saliva.

A next door neighbour who had entered the house said she saw the children foaming at the mouth and heard Clara say "I have done it; I have done my children in." she had also seen the bottle of poison in her hand.

Clara had then run from the house and gave herself up to the police.

The children received medical attention, but some hours later their suffering ended with their deaths. The post-mortem confirmed that the children had died by ingesting spirit of salts containing hydrochloric acid.

Both Police and doctors said that during her initial interview and questioning that she smelled of alcohol and was incoherent and hysterical. Further diagnosis confirmed that she was depressed, mentally apathetic, suffering from melancholia and unable to recall recent events.

Given her confession and evidence, what sentence was in order? The jury decided that although guilty, insanity mitigated her offence. Thus, she was consigned to the Broadmoor. As in the previous case, her release would be contingent upon the evaluation by hospital staff regarding her progress.

A Modern View

Since that time, understanding the chemical struggle underlying post-natal depression has encompassed more than the killing of children. In 1986, 17-year-old Anna Reynolds, having recently given birth, killed her mother by striking her head with a hammer while she was asleep.

Prior to this, Ms. Reynolds had no history of emotional issues. The mother-daughter relationship had never been fraught with an unusual degree of contention.

Sentenced to life imprisonment, Ms. Reynolds was released, largely due to the expert testimony of Dr. Katharina Dalton. Clinical tests revealed Ms. Reynolds’ system to be almost completely devoid of progesterone and oestrogen, hormones essential to the normal functioning of the female nervous system. Since that time, Ms. Reynolds has married and become a successful playwright.


Despite media and cinematic depictions, in the U.S., only 1 per cent of all cases brought to trial are based upon the insanity defence. Heartening as it would be to end this article with a definitive statement as to this defence, this is not feasible.

In the U.S., such tests as that of the irresistible impulse, and the Durham Rule, the Model Penal Code, and the 1984, Comprehensive Crime Control Act have been tried. While interpretations of the most accurate means of testing insanity have been set forth, none of these have proved absolute.

Studies of the effects of heredity and, environment upon DNA hold the best hope of enhanced understanding. Until such time as brain function is more fully understood, the mental state of any defendant is bound to remain, to some extent, an enigma.

© 2013 Colleen Swan


Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on July 19, 2014:

Thank you Peggy. Insanity is a legal flux. What right today is wrong tomorrow.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 18, 2014:

This is definitely a conundrum of sorts when it comes to deliberating what is the best thing to do in such cases. I think that Don's professor probably had it right. There is still the sentencing to be determined and hopefully they get that right.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on November 05, 2013:

Thanks Dahoglund for your comment. I think your professor was right, and that this is sometimes done.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on November 05, 2013:

I had a college professor who thought the best thing to do with the insanity plea was to separate the insanity issue from the crime. In his opinion the crime should be tried and the insanity issue dealt with at the sentencing phase. Always made sense to me.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 05, 2013:

Colleen, thank you for this look at how the insanity plea developed. Mentally ill people always have my sympathy. The problem is, that many people have learned to mimic insanity; and make it difficult for those who really need the sympathy. What a dilemma!

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on November 04, 2013:

Very interesting. I am amazed that nothing is done to help the criminally insane until they commit the crime of murder.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on November 04, 2013:

Thank you Annart. I love evaluating these unusual crimes.

Ann Carr from SW England on November 04, 2013:

This is a brilliantly researched and thorough explanation of 'criminally insane', with so many case studies. Fascinating!

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