Does the Insanity Defense justify the means?

With cases like Julie Schenecher who put a bullet through her son in his head while driving and another in his mouth and then returned home to do the exact same things to her daughter while she was doing her homework because she stated “they were mean to me”.

How about Megan Huntsman who was charged with killing 7 infants in her home and put them in cardboard boxes. Sometimes there is no justice where criminal defense attorneys do not even use the insanity defense where the evidence is so overwhelming and the defendant is acquitted of all charges such in the Casey Anthony case and in our system cannot be tried again. Where is the justice for these innocent souls?

Andrea Yates was legally insane when she drowned her five children in a bathtub, allegedly to save them from being tormented forever in hell.

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Many scientists and legal scholars have complained that tests like these, used by the law to determine criminal responsibility, are unscientific. Given recent advances in our understanding of human behavior and of the brain, these critics argue, the legal test for insanity is a quaint relic of a bygone era.

These criticisms misunderstand the nature of criminal responsibility, which is moral, not scientific. On the other hand, legislation that has eliminated or unduly constrained the insanity defense, often in response to unpopular verdicts of not guilty by reason of insanity, is likewise off the mark. Between these two attacks, the concept of the morally responsible individual seems to be disappearing.

In an effort to hold most people accountable, and recognizing both the difficulty of establishing what was in the defendant’s mind at the time of the crime and the defendant’s incentive to lie about it, the law sought to establish strict standards for responsibility. As a result, legal insanity tests were drawn quite narrowly. They did not excuse most defendants whose intentional conduct broke the law, even if they might have suffered from mental disorders or other problems at the time of the crime.

The rise of various materialistic and deterministic explanations of human behavior, including psychiatry, psychology, sociology and, more recently, neuroscience, has posed a particular challenge to the criminal law’s relatively simple central assumption that with few exceptions we act intentionally and can be held responsible. With perceptions of insanity, they have no control. People are not responsible for their crimes: it’s their poverty, their addictions or, ultimately, their neurons.

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If we agree that there may be some percentage of people whose moral cognition is seriously disordered, how can the law identify those people in a way that will not allow the materialism of science to expand the definitions of excusing conditions to include all criminals? That is, if paranoid schizophrenia can provide part of the basis to excuse some criminal acts, why not bipolar disorder, or being angry, or having a bad day, or just being a jerk? After all, a large number of factors over which we have no rational control cause each of us to be the way we are.

The short answer is that we should recognize that the criteria for responsibility. Most people are responsible, but some are not.

Convicting and punishing a defendant who genuinely believed that God commanded him to kill is not unscientific, it is immoral and unjust.

We should be skeptical about claims of non-responsibility. But, if insanity-defense tests are interpreted sensibly to excuse people who genuinely lacked the ability to reason morally at the time of the crime, and expert testimony is treated with appropriate caution, can the criminal justice system reasonably decide whom to blame and punish?

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In the 1950’s came the abolishment of the Mental Institutions where souls were left to squalor. Now the decision makers have to make a judgment that is never based on fact. Mental illness is not an exact science. Law is not a science.

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