Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lexicon of Madness -- Insanity Defense

Insanity Defense: More formally, the Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) defense. "Insanity" is a legal, even moral, concept, rather than a clinical one. (Clinicians do not determine a defendant's "insanity," only judges or juries do.) The intent of NGRI laws is to prevent the punishment of someone who committed a "bad act" due to a mental disease or defect. A person whose actions were influenced by a psychotic disorder or other mental problem is not considered as blameworthy or culpable as a normal adult. The NGRI defense is rarely used, and is not always successful when it is used. NGRI defenses are more likely to be successful if the defendant is female, has a clear psychiatric history (bipolar disorder or schizophrenia), and is tried by a judge (not a jury). A typical NGRI case might involve a 35 year old woman with a history of hospitalizations for schizophrenia who came to believe that her children are possessed by the Devil. In order to free them of Satanic influence, she threw them off a bridge, before jumping herself. In most cases of "successful" NGRI acquittals, the accused end up spending more years in a psychiatric institution than they would have spent in prison had they been convicted. John Hinckley, Jr., who shot President Reagan and three others in 1981 has been hospitalized at St. Elizabeth's in Washington, DC ever since. In contrast, the Federal sentencing guidelines for a person convicted of Assault with Intent to Commit Murder, in which a victim sustains life-threatening injuries, suggest 16 to 20 years of incarceration.

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