- Published: November 30, 1999
For an attorney, dealing with the insanity defense can be controversial as a prosecutor or as a defense attorney. When a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, he or she may admit to committing the crime, but may claim that he or she was mentally incapacitated at the time of the crime so that he or she did not have the capacity to have the intent to commit the crime. However, this does not mean that individuals with a mental illness are automatically declared not guilty because of their mental illness. There are mentally ill individuals who are found guilty and who are in prison now. For example, drug dependence can be considered a form of mental illness, but does not act to mitigate the criminal’s sentence.1
Some believe the insanity defense allows criminals to avoid more serious sentencing. The public was outraged when President Ronald Reagan’s would be assassin, John W. Hinckley, Jr., was found not guilty by reason of insanity.2 Hinckley believed that the actress Jodie Foster would be impressed by his actions. Hinckley remains confined at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. After Hinckley’s ruling, it became more difficult to use the insanity plea.
1 Harvard Law Review Association. (2008). Developments in the law: the law of mental illness. Harvard Law Review, 121, 1114-1191.
2 Wolf, Julie. (1999). People & Events: John Hinckley Jr. American Experience. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reagan/peopleevents/pande02.html