Applicability of the M'naghten Rule as a Defense in Criminal trial in the United States of America
Introduction: Outline of Defense of Insanity
Criminal jurisprudence rests on the premise that the two essential ingredients of crime are actus reus – a criminal act and mens rea – a guilty mind. In a criminal trial, it is usually this premise of mens rea that the defendants seek to challenge by purporting the defense of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’. The mens rea is the mental element required for a crime and if absent excuses the defendant from criminal responsibility and punishment. This is because a plea of insanity is an affirmative defense, i.e., if it is accepted by a court deciding on a question of fact, it results in absolving the accused of any criminal liability. It is imperative to note that this is essentially the line of distinction between the defense of insanity and diminished capacity – which has the effect of mitigating the nature of the offence only. The burden of proof pertaining to the defense of insanity usually vests with the defendants after the landmark Hinckley’s case.
However, insanity for the purpose of law differs starkly from a condition of medical insanity. Therefore, mental illness and insanity are not synonymous: only some mental illness constitutes insanity. Insanity, however, includes not only mental illness but also mental deficiencies. Due to this, there are problems in exactly how to apply a medical theory to a legal matter. As already mentioned a frequent misunderstanding is that a psychiatrist is able, merely by examining a man and applying psychiatric or psychological principles, to decide whether he was legally responsible when he did a particular deed. The enquiry cannot be made in these terms since responsibility is not a scientific or objective fact. Whereas, legal insanity is based on statutes and judicial pronouncements, known as common law.Therefore, it is incumbent on the defendants to prove that they were ‘legally’ insane at the time of commission of the offence. The modern plea of insanity – or absence of requisite guilty mental condition, is embodied in the English doctrine of 1843 M’Naghten rule which was the first case where such a defense was upheld by the Court. This shall be the focus of our discussion in this paper whereby, we shall examine the paradigm of applicability of this rule in US.
History of The Insanity Defense In The United States
The defense of insanity in the US has always relatively been mired in ambiguity, mainly because of its derivation from the English common law where the application of the defense itself has been altered from time to time. Historically, it is believed that under English common law, there was a blanket ban on any criminal liability being attributed to persons inflicted with insanity. There is some evidence to suggest that as early as 1581 English Kings in certain cases absolved criminal liability of mad men. However, this position of law was substantially modified by the M’Naghten decision which formulates the basis of the present defense of insanity. This requires us to examine in great detail the rule laid down in this case.
Facts in brief: Daniel M’Naghten was a woodworker from Glasgow, Scotland. Mr. M’Naghten attempted to assassinate the British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel with his gun. He believed that the Tory political party spear-headed by the Prime Minister wanted to kill him. However, because of mistaken identity, Daniel shot and killed the Prime Minister’s secretary, Edward Drummond, instead. Daniel’s defense attorneys argued that Mr. M’Naghten believed the Tory political party was persecuting him, which was to emphasize on the fact that he was delusional. The medical experts permitted by the Judge argued that because of Mr. M’Naghten’s delusions, he was unable to form the necessary mens rea for murder, as at the time he committed the crime he didn’t know what he was doing. Some time after the jury rendered the M’Naghten decision, and due to public alarm, the leadership of the English House of Lords assembled convocation of English judges, who Queen Victoria tasked with developing a legal definition of insanity. The convocation then reversed the decision of the jury in the M’Naghten case but also established what came to be known as the M’Naghten rule.
Held, “Every man is to be presumed to be sane . . . . To establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing something wrong.”
Applicability of The M’naghten Rule In The Us
The cardinal principle in M’Naghten test is the inability to know the difference between right and wrong. The rule applies a knowledge-based cognitive standard to determine what the person charged knew at the time of committing the crime. The M’Naghten standard was the predominant test used in the United States until approximately 1962. However, it was preceded by an arduous process of defining the appropriate standards of insanity to use in defense, one that would reconcile the growing body of psychiatric opinion with the legal principles governing this defense. Presently, as many as 17 states (approximately) use M’Naghten-type test in their respective Penal Codes although, with substantial variations, although, a majority of states have adopted some versions of the Model Penal Code.
Inadequacies and criticism of M’Naghten
It is interesting to note that under the M’Naghten test of insanity, it is incumbent on the prosecutor merely to prove that the defendant understood the consequences emerging from his act, the factum of mental illness is not germane to the issue. This is particularly significant because until the 19th century medical testimony was rare at an insanity trial. On several occasions it was determined primarily on the basis of a doctor’s generic list of behaviours endemic to the accused – this formulated the backdrop the defendant counsel’s plea of insanity. Based on this, as psychiatry became more accepted and prominent in the United States, several critics argued that the insanity defense should focus on mental illness should focus on mental illness and not a cognitive test of knowing right from wrong.
Significantly, the critics of M’Naghten rule challenged the very premise on which it was based right from its inception. They argued that the greatest chunk in the rule was its inability to address cases where the offender may cognitively know right from wrong, but were unable to control themselves from committing the crime. This led to the development of irresistible impulse defense.
Irresistible Impulse – An Alternative To M’naghten
Gradually, as the inadequacies of a strict rule in M’Naghten was brought to light, the defendants began to develop the defense of irresistible impulse which sought to incorporate cases in which the criminal conduct could not be restrained even with prior knowledge of the consequences of the act in the mind of the accused. This defense was pioneered in the well-known case of Lorena Bobbit.
The Lorena Bobbit case
In this case, the defendant was charged in the State of Virginia for maliciously wounding her husband by cutting off his penis with a kitchen knife while he was asleep. Her attorneys raised the plea of irresistible impulse stating that she was unable to restrain her actions although, she was aware of the consequences of her actions. They brought it to the Court’s notice that her actions were motivated by the perpetual physical, sexual, and mental abuse inflicted on her by her husband over the years of their marriage. The State of Virginia remains the only state still to use this defense in its original form. The State of Georgia allowed it as a defense in addition to M’Naghten-type rule.
Critics, meanwhile, have voiced their concerns over the leniency that this defense invokes in imposing criminal liability. They argued that society is governed by the collective impulse of men, but while most are successful in restraining it; the inability of a few to adhere to the same cannot legitimize their conduct. Instead, they should be made culpable for the consequences of their actions.
The Durham Test – A New Perspective
This was perhaps, the first test based on a scientific understanding of mental disorders as a curable medical condition. Although, it was expounded by the Supreme Court of New Hampshire as early as 1871 in the case of State v Jones, it derived its recognition in the 1954 US Court of Appeals case of Durham v State of US. The Court held that,
“a person could not be held responsible for criminal behavior if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect.”
Scholarly opinion termed Durham as revolutionary for its scientific approach was reflective of the progress in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. However, due to the vagueness pervading the definition of mental illness and the different variations it entails it was ultimately, rejected in 1972 in the case of United States v Brawner, in favour of a ‘substantial capacity’ test.
American Law Institute – ‘Substantial Capacity’ Test
In an effort to reconcile the jurisprudence surrounding several defense theories, experts from the American Law Institute in 1962 developed a Model Penal Code to address the anomalies of earlier insanity tests. The ALI substantial capacity defense provided the following:
“A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.”
The ALI test incorporated into its fold although, with significant variance the test of M’Naghten and irresistible impulse. Experts opined that ALI laid down a broader and more expansive test of insanity when viewed against M’Naghten. It recognized the degree of insanity by depreciating the insanity standard from the requirement of absolute knowledge of right and wrong to a substantial capacity to appreciate the difference between right and wrong. Interestingly, it also, integrated the irresistible impulse test by application of the words ‘conform his conducts to the requirements of law’ thereby, adding the element of volition in conduct. Presently, 22 states (approximately) still use the ALI definition, although most states have amended their statutes in the aftermath of the Hinckley’s case. This is because the requisite standard for determining ‘substantial capacity’ proved to be imprecise and in some cases even incomprehensible.
Insanity Defense Reform Act - A Response To Hinckley
The John Hinckley case
John Hinckley Jr., a man inflicted by schizophrenia, was accused of shooting the then President Ronald Reagan, a secret service agent, a Washington police officer and James Brady, the press secretary to the President. It was argued by his defense attorney’s that by reason of his mental incapacity he was unable to control his actions. It was motivated by his admiration for actress Jodie Foster and in a letter to the New York Times, he justified his actions as a ‘love offering’ with the object of gaining favour with Foster while comparing himself with Napolean and Josephine and Romeo and Juliet. The jury opined that although Hinckley may have known in some capacity that his acts were wrong, because of his delusions he lacked substantial capacity or ability to appreciate that his acts were wrong. Thus, his plea of insanity was accepted which resulted in his subsequent acquittal.
Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984
The decision of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ by the jury in the Hinckley case shook the public conscience and out-raged public opinion against the very plea of insanity. This eventually obligated the Congress to enact the Insanity Defense Reform Act, 1984. It prescribed a stricter version of the ALI test which was starkly similar to the M’Naghten-type test that ALI sought to discredit. The IRDA, provides the following:
“It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any federal statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense” (18 U.S.C. § 12(a)).
Subsequently, 30 states (approximately) amended their state laws to incorporate the IRDA which marked a return to a restrictive M’Naghten-type test. It eliminated the irresistible impulse test while entailing the defendant to demonstrate a ‘severe’ mental defect thereby, setting unprecedented threshold for the application of this defense.
The Present Viability Of The Defense Of Insanity
The reforms introduced by IRDA failed to persuade all quarters as a result, by 1986 three states of Montana,Idaho and Utah and later followed by Kansass imposed a complete ban on the defense of insanity using it only for the restricted purpose of disproving mens rea. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the ban in the case of State v. Cowan, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. Nevada adopted a similar statute barring the defense, but its Supreme Court found the statute unconstitutional, and again the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not finally ruled on the constitutionality of a complete insanity defense ban, other states are continuing to abolish the defense. While certain states have also, adopted statues providing the defense in the form of ‘guilty but mentally insane’; which while incriminates the defendant, but in recognition of their mental condition they are recommended to appropriate foster homes in order to receive treatment in addition to incarceration. This presents a case of alternating realities as on one hand it address the concern of attributing criminal liability on the guilty irrespective of the mental condition; while on the other hand, it provides the convict an opportunity for reformation which expectedly, lays the foundation for reintegrating such individuals into the mainstream of social life, after such reformation reflects tangible results.
1. Andrew Ashworth, “Principles of Criminal Law”, 5th Ed., 2006, New York: Oxford University Press.
2. Glanville Williams, “Textbook of Criminal Law”, 2nd Ed.,1983, London: Stevens & Sons Publication at page 640.)
3. Joseph Goldstein, Alan M. Dershowitz & Richard D. Schwartz, Criminal Law: Theory and Practice 767 (1974)
4. Katherine S. Williams, “Textbook on Criminology”, 3rd Ed. 1997, London: Blackstone Press at page 259
5. Martin R. Gardner, The Mens Rea Enigma: Observations on the Role of Motive in the Criminal Law Past and Present, 1993
6. Peter Brett, An Inquiry into Criminal Guilt, 41-42 (1963)
7. Peter Murphy, “Blackstone’s Criminal Practice”, 1977 Ed., London: Blackstone Press.
8. ,“Scoping paper on Insanity and Automatism” England law commission, 18th July 2012.
9. Stephen Morse and Morris B. Hoffman, "The Uneasy Entente between Insanity and Mens Rea: Beyond Clark v. Arizona" (February 12, 2007).
10. T.H. Jones, ‘Insanity, Automatism and the Burden of proof on the Accused’ (1995) 111 LQR 475
# See Joseph Goldstein, Alan M. Dershowitz & Richard D. Schwartz, Criminal Law: Theory and Practice 767 (1974); see also Francis Bowes Sayre, Mens Rea, 45 Harv. L. Rev. 974, 974 (1932).
# Martin R. Gardner, The Mens Rea Enigma: Observations on the Role of Motive in the Criminal Law Past and Present, 1993 UTAH L. REV. 635, 668-69 (1993).
# See N.M. U.J.I. Cr. 14-5101 (2005) (Uniform Jury Instruction informing the jury that the “[t]he burden is on the state toprove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was sane at the time the offense was committed.”).R. Spring, Farewell to Insanity: A Return to Mens Rea, 66 J.K.B.A. 38, 43 (1997). If “public safety” from insanity acquittals was a primary moving force for these abolitionists, it suggests that they were more interested in increasing criminal convictions of the mentally ill, rather than legal clarity. See G. Platt, The Proposal to Abolish the Federal Insanity Defense: A Critique, 10 CAL. W. L. REV. 449, 470 (1974).
# See Andrew Ashworth, “Principles of Criminal Law”, 5th Ed., 2006, New York: Oxford University Press.
# United States of America v. Herman Campbell BARNETT, Jr, 18 U.S.C. § 3164(b) (1988)
# Glanville Williams, “Textbook of Criminal Law”, 2nd Ed., 1983, London: Stevens & Sons Publication at page 640.
# In 1796 insanity was adopted by English common law courts. Blackstone explained that lunatics suffered a deficiency in will that rendered them unable to tell right from wrong. W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 24 (1769) as cited by Justice Scalia in his dissent in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 340, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 2260, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002).
# See,“Scoping paper on Insanity and Automatism” England law commission, 18th July 2012. Paragraph 1.14 “The defendant bears the burden of proving on the balance of probabilities that he is insane within that test.” See also Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985).
# 10 Cl. & F at 211, 8 ER at 273. Daniel McNaghten was acquitted by the jury.
# Stephen Morse and Morris B. Hoffman, "The Uneasy Entente between Insanity and Mens Rea: Beyond Clark v. Arizona" (February 12, 2007).
# M’Naghten’s Case, 8 Eng. Rep. 718, 722; see also, Peter Brett, An Inquiry into Criminal Guilt, 41-42 (1963); Martin R. Gardner, The Mens Rea Enigma: Observations on the Role of Motive in the Criminal Law Past and Present, 1993 UTAH L. REV. 635, 737 (1993)
# 10 Cl. & F at 211, 8 ER at 273. Daniel McNaghten was acquitted by the jury, before the formulation of the rules now associated with his name; but under those rules he should have been convicted
# A common definition of mental disease or defect is found in the Texas statutes, which provides the following: “The term ‘mental disease or defect’ does not include an abnormality manifested only by repeated criminal or otherwise antisocial conduct.” (Tex. Penal Code § 8.01 (b)). Thus, many of these definitions attempt to exclude what the American Psychological Association and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – IV (DSM-IV) would deem personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder.
# Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 250-51 (1952)
# Many states follow a variation of the American Law Institute (ALI) test which is a combination of the M'Naghten Rule and the "irresistible impulse" test. The ALI standard state that a person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect, he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. American Law Institute, Model Penal Code (Proposed Official Draft, 1962), §§ 4.01, at p. 74.
# Ibid Note 15
# Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 800, 72 S.Ct. 1002, 1008, 96 L.Ed. 1302 (1952). In Leland, the Supreme Court upheld an Oregon statute that placed the burden of proving insanity beyond a reasonable doubt on the defendant. The Supreme Court, in refusing to adopt a specific test for insanity, determined a specific test would be unwarranted given the uncertainty in the psychiatric community and the erratic history of the insanity defense.
# State v. Herrera, 895 P.2d 359, 364 (1984) (citing Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514, 535-36, 88 S.Ct. 2145, 2156, 20 L.Ed. 2d 1254 (1968)); State v. Searcy, 118 Idaho 632, 636, 798 P.2d 914, 918 (1990)(citing Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514, 535-36, 88 S.Ct. 2145, 2156, 20 L.Ed. 2d 1254 (1968).
# Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 72 S.Ct.1002, 96 L.Ed.1302 (1952) (adoption of the irresistible impulse test is not implicit in the concept of ordered liberty).
# 13 Va. Stats. Ann. § 4801(a)(1)
# Ga. Code Ann. § 16-3-3
# State v. Jones, 50 N.H. 369 (1871). The New Hampshire Supreme Court had earlier criticized the M’Naghten Rule in Statev. Pike, 49 N.H. 399 (1870).
# Durham v. U.S., 214 F.2d 862 (D.C. Cir. 1954).
# As set forth in Durham v. United States, 214 F.2d 862,874875 (D.C.1954), "a defendant is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was a product of mental disease or defect."
# United States v. Brawner, 471 F.2d 969 (D.C. Cit. 1972).
# Approximately 22 states expressly rejected the Durham Rule through common law or statutory references.
# ALI Model Penal Code § 4.01(1)
# The ALI standard state that a person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect, he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. American Law Institute, Model Penal Code (Proposed Official Draft, 1962), §§ 4.01, at p. 74.
# Insanity Defense Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. 17(a) (1988).
# See, "prevailing community standards" and "legal andmoral aspects of responsibility." State v. Searcy, 118 Idaho 632, fn 3, 798 P.2d 914 (1990).
# “Evidence that the defendant suffered from a mental disease or defect or developmental disability is admissible to prove that the defendant did or did not have a state of mind that is an element of the offense.” MONT. CODE .ANN. § 46-14-102 (2003).
# UTAH CODE ANN. § 76-2-305 (2003).
# IDAHO CODE § 18-207 (Michie 2004).
# “It is a defense to a prosecution under any statute that the defendant, as a result of mental mdisease or defect, lacked the mental state required as an element of the offense charged. Mental disease or defect is not otherwise a defense. The provisions of this section shall be in force and take effect on and after January 1, 1996.” KAN. STAT. ANN. § 22-3220 (1996).
# State v. Cowan, 861 P.2d 884 (Mont. 1993), cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1105 (1994) (holding that barring the insanity defense is not unconstitutional and does not violate the 8th amendment’s strictures against cruel and unusual punishment).
# Finger v. State, 27 P.3d 66 (Nev. 2001), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1127 (2002).
# See S.C. Code Ann. § 17-24-20(A), Pa. Con. Stats. § 314(b)
# See People v. Sorna, 276 N,W, 892 (Mich. App. 1979) (holding that where insanity is established, defendant should receive treatment in addition to incarceration).
The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org