Crazy, Okay, but Guilty, Anyway

The History and Legal Use of the Insanity Defense

In ancient times, insanity had no particular bearing on the question of criminal guilt. If one were to be found to have committed a crime, even a

Daniel Edward Sickles, a US Congressman at the time, was the first to successfully win a case by pleading Temporary Insanity for killing his wife's lover. He later became a Major General during the Civil War.
Daniel Edward Sickles, a US Congressman at the time, was the first to successfully win a case in the U.S. by pleading Temporary Insanity for killing his wife’s lover in 1859. He later became a Major General during the Civil War.

murder, such a one would most likely receive a guilty conviction and a punishment, even if he or she were a lunatic. However, by the mid 13th Century, it was not uncommon to find monarchs granting pardons to mentally ill persons, who had actually been convicted of homicide in a court­ of­law. Over the next several decades, such acts of grace became even more commonplace; until, by the time of the 14th Century, insanity began to be recognized as a defense to all sorts of crimes. Lives could be spared from execution; and the only other punishment that might be imposed would be that the criminal’s property could be forfeited to the victims, or the State. By the middle of that century, absolute madness had become a complete defense to a criminal charge. However, as time went on, and into the next century and beyond, the tension between a persistent need to conform to the integrity of legal analysis, continued to increase; and often in the face of what was often seen as mere sentimentality and emotion.

Nevertheless, the assault upon strict application of the law by way of graceful impulse, continued to manifest itself; including, by way of a proposition of a scientific underpinning for the idea that insanity should be a defense to conviction of a crime. It ultimately became maintained by the best of the scholars, that insanity could actually deprive a person of the ability to entertain a sufficient mental state, otherwise necessary for the conviction of even the simplest crime, let alone one so heinous as to constitute a finding of guilt for murder. That is because of the basic legal principle that criminal guilt can only result from the performance of an act for which there is a prescribed punishment.

Furthermore, it shall also be found, that there must be a concurrence of such a forbidden evil act (actus reus), with an equally evil state of mind (mens rea), for a crime to be found to have been committed. Furthermore, if one should be found to have been so mentally deficient at the time of the doing of an otherwise criminal act, that it would have been impossible for him or her to formulate and entertain a sufficiently evil state of mind while performing the act, it would therefore be impossible for such a person to be found liable for any crime, let alone a murder. By this time in our history, every State in the Union has a specific law for the purpose of an insanity defense. The most common of all of them requires, that for an accused to establish a defense on the grounds of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, such a person was incapable of knowing or understanding the nature and quality of his or her act, and of distinguishing whether it was right or wrong.

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