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Forensic Psychology - Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity: Volitional Abilities

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:51pm

The other day, the NGRI post addressed the requirements for establishing that a crime has been committed, as well as the first prong of an exception to this (impairment of cognitive abilities). The second prong in the exception to mens rea (unlawful intent) is an impairment of an individual’s volitional abilities. This would be defined as an inability for an individual to control their own behavior as a result of a severe mental health issue. In this manner, the law states that free will has also been compromised.

If an individual’s capacity to behave rationally has been impaired by a severe disease or defect, then the law indicates that the individual’s culpability for their actions is diminished. This does not apply to impairments that result from volitional activity. For example, if an individual is incapacitated as a result of severe mental retardation, then the loss of free will applies. However, if an individual suffers an impairment as a result of a behavior they willingly engaged in (a typical example being intoxication), then an individual’s loss of free will is generally not recognized. So, if a guy goes out, gets drunk, drives, and hits someone, he cannot claim to have been legally insane at the time because of mental impairment, even if the intoxication was severe. This is because the incapacitated state was voluntarily induced.

It should also be noted that different statutes interpret and/or apply the above standards differently. For example, the federal government of the U.S. no longer applies the second prong (volitional abilities) to the concept of NGRI. That is, in federal court, only an incapacitation of cognitive abilities can be considered for the purpose of sanity at the time of the offense. Specifically, federal law requires the “presence of a severe mental disease or defect, such that an individual could not appreciate the nature, quality, or wrongfulness or their actions.” This was altered in response to the attempted assassination of President Reagan by John Hinckley, who was found NGRI based on the second prong. I plan on doing an in-depth post on that particular issue when time permits...

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