There’s an interesting story in the ABA Journal today: a murder defendant is arguing that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. This isn’t unheard of, by any stretch of the imagination. However, his basis for the insanity defense is interesting: he claims that he spent the weeks before the murder drinking lots of coffee, and that the resulting caffeine-induced sleep deprivation drove him into murderous insanity. The story is also reported here and here.
Before continuing, I should note that I think the insanity defense gets a bad rap. It’s not the get-out-of-jail-free card that some people seem to think it is. First of all, in the U.S., the insanity defense is only even attempted in slightly less than 1% of criminal cases. And when the defense is raised, it only succeeds slightly less than a quarter of the time. This means that less than one quarter of one percent (0.25%, or 25/1000, or .025) of criminal defendants is found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Secondly, if you’re found not guilty by reason of insanity, all this means is that a jury has found that the defendant didn’t have sufficient awareness of, or control over, their actions to find the moral culpability to warrant punishment. This doesn’t mean that such a person isn’t still dangerous. As such, a person acquitted because of insanity sometimes ends up in a mental institution, where they can be held until they’re deemed to no longer be a threat to themselves or others. This might just be a few months. But it might also take many years, perhaps even longer than their prison term would have been had they been convicted. Sometimes, it never happens, and they are institutionalized for the rest of their lives. As you can see, this isn’t exactly a sweet deal for the defendant.
Third, the insanity defense actually serves a very important purpose. Criminal law is based on a few different objectives, the two main ones being deterrence and retribution. Almost everyone agrees that these two factors play a role in criminal justice, though there is a wide range of opinions on exactly how much of a role each should play (with the modern trend being a stronger focus on deterrence through rehabilitation, rather than simple punishment/retribution). In any case, because criminal law involves punishment, there must be some type of fault on the part of the defendant to warrant it. If a person is so completely out of their mind that they have no idea what they’re doing, or are completely unable to control their actions, it’s not fair to punish them. But as discussed above, they still may represent a danger to the public, and have to be dealt with accordingly.
However, when the insanity on which the defense is based was caused by the defendant’s own willful conduct (such as taking drugs), the situation becomes a little ambiguous. The defendant’s mental state may well be sufficient to make them less responsible for their actions. However, they voluntarily took a drug that they should have known might put them in such a state. As a matter of policy, it seems that a person shouldn’t be able to voluntarily put themselves in a state in which they aren’t legally responsible for their actions.
This isn’t to say that we should ban all intoxicating drugs. Rather, it’s simply an argument that, if you voluntarily take an intoxicant, you shouldn’t be relieved of any responsibility for your actions while in your intoxicated state.
I would not be surprised if this particular case, because of its unusual facts, got blown way out of proportion by the media. First of all, the success of this guy’s insanity defense depends entirely on whether a jury buys it. They very well may not. It might also be compared to the “Twinkie Defense” fiasco.
When former San Francisco supervisor Dan White shot and killed Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978, he had been in a downward spiral of depression and paranoia. Once considered a fitness fanatic and advocate of healthy eating, his diet had come to consist almost entirely of junk food, including Twinkies. In his murder trial, he was found guilty of a lesser offense on the basis of diminished capacity, because of his damaged mental state at the time the crimes were committed. This became known as the “Twinkie Defense” in the media, with the assumption being that he was acquitted simply because he ate a lot of junk food. The term has come to refer to any improbable-sounding legal defense, usually derisively.
However, White’s defense attorney never made this argument, and the jury didn’t acquit him on that basis. Instead of arguing that his excessive consumption of junk food caused his insanity, they simply presented it, among many other facts, as evidence that he was insane; the exact opposite cause-and-effect relationship that the “Twinkie Defense” is said to represent.
So, what should we take away from all of this? Well, first of all, if this guy is actually acquitted (which seems unlikely) we can probably expect a few editorials and blog posts bemoaning our “broken” legal system, and wondering how this could happen. Chances are, they’ll compare it to the fictional version of the “Twinkie Defense” that everybody seems determined to believe.
However, by the time the facts of a case are distilled through the media, many important details are often lost in the shuffle. People often complain about criminal defendants “getting off” on a “technicality” even in the context of an insanity defense. This seems to be a stand in for “I didn’t like the way this case came out so it’s clearly illegitimate.” Given the actual nature and consequences of the insanity defense, anyone who fully understood it probably wouldn’t be so outraged over its use, even in bizarre cases like this.
By: Rusty Shackleford