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Forensic Psychology: Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity - Legal Standards

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:51pm

In the English and American legal systems, the concept of insanity as a defense has been present going back to at least the 17 th century. The wording, criteria, and standards have changed over the years, but in America for federal instate legal systems currently use one of two standards for the insanity difference. The first is called the McNaughton standard, and the second is provided by the American law Institute (known as the” ALI” standard). This states pretty much split down the middle in terms of which standard is used, with New Hampshire (naturally) being the only state that uses its own distinct standard. The federal government uses the McNaughton standard at this time.

What the McNaughton standard requires is that, at the time of individuals a sense, as a result of omental disease or defect, that individual did not know the nature or quality of his act, or was unable to know that the act was wrong. The origins for this standard date back to 1843, when a man named Daniel McNaughton targeted prime minister Robert Peel but instead a shot Peel’s Secretary. The outrage that followed prompted Queen victoria to demand clarification from the House of Lords about the rules covering insanity. The following statement the findings, in part, the answer to the Queen: “To establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, but he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”

In examining the McNaughton standard, it is apparent that only a defendant’s cognitive impairments may be considered, and the role of volitional impairment is not applicable. In contrast, the American law Institute developed a standard for legal insanity that included a volitional component. The standard states that: “A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements although law.” Obviously, since the ALI standard is broader, the McNaughton standard is the more conservative of the two.

A couple of other interesting points. First, a few states of chosen to abolish the insanity defense. Montana and Idaho eliminated the insanity defense prior to John Hinkley’s attempted assassination of president Reagan. Utah abolish its insanity defense soon after, and Nevada in Kansas also eliminated it in the mid-1990s. Another provision has also been developed, which is called guilty but mentally ill. This provision recognizes that the defendant has a mental illness, or was on to the influence of a mental illness at the time of the offense, but it does not impact the defendant’s culpability. The primary intent of this provision is to allow insurers the option to recognize the mental illness of a defendant without necessarily acquitting him/her, as well as to marked that individual for treatment once in the correctional setting.

Regarding the federal system, there is a language addressing the existence of insanity at the time of the offense: A person is considered to be legally insane if the court determines, at the time of the offense, the individual suffered from a mental disease or defect and due to this defect was unable to appreciate the nature, quality, or wrongfulness of his or her conduct. Examining this standard from the federal court system, you can see that it falls clearly on the side of the McNaughton standard, and therefore does not include any consideration for volitional impairment. Simply having a mental health issue, even a significant one such as a psychotic disorder, is not sufficient for a finding of NGRI. Said disorder must be of such significance that it impairs the individual’s ability to recognize that an illegal action is wrong. This is a very high bar, which explains why this defense is rarely used, and rarely successful.

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