Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 17, 2015

Another insane person found guilty of murder

Filed under: crime,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 12:56 am

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Years from now, when socialist historians of the future examine the dead carcass of US capitalism, they will pay special attention to the growing barbarism of the penal system. While most attention will obviously be paid to the reintroduction of the death penalty and a racist judicial system that incarcerates minorities disproportionately, there will also have to be a close look at the tendency to treat mentally ill people as common criminals.

For all practical purposes, the insanity defense is a thing of the past. It was first introduced in Great Britain in the 1840s, a time of child labor and other cruelties that figure large in the novels of Charles Dickens. The insanity defense was first used in the case of an 1843 assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Robert Peel by a psychotic individual named Daniel M’Naghten. When a physician testified that M’Naghten was insane, the prosecution agreed to stop the case and the defendant was declared insane despite protests from Queen Victoria and the House of Lords.

The M’Naghten Rule can be simply described as a “right and wrong” test. The jury was required to answer two questions: (1) did the defendant know what he was doing when he committed the crime?; or (2) did the defendant understand that his actions were wrong?

When psychotic individuals were on trial without a prior history of professional treatment, it was somewhat more difficult to find them not guilty by reason of insanity but it could be done. Now it makes no difference if someone has been under treatment for a psychiatric illness. So what happened?

In a word, John Hinckley.

After Hinckley was found not guilty by insanity of his assassination attempt on the beloved reactionary US President Reagan, committees of the House and Senate held hearings regarding use of the insanity defense within a month of the verdict.

Within three years of Hinckley’s acquittal, Congress and half of the states enacted laws limiting use of the defense and one state, Utah, abolished the defense outright. In 1986 Utah was joined by Montana andIdaho, two other “frontier justice” states. Congress passed revisions in the defense embodied in the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which reads:

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.

As a rule of thumb, schizophrenics who are in a “severe” condition are too detached from reality to go out and kill somebody, let alone cross the street. People who are this dysfunctional are generally hospitalized. The more typical occurrence is somebody who goes off their medication when they are not hospitalized, but who are sufficiently in touch with reality to use a knife or some other weapon. And even if such an individual is in a “severe” state at the time of the crime, they will pump him full of medications during the trial to effectuate a “sane” condition sufficient to win a conviction. Another factor that militates against a successful defense is that psychiatrists are no longer allowed as expert witnesses in many cases.

After 21 years of confinement in a mental hospital, Hinckley had been allowed to visit his aging parents on weekends under stringent conditions. That had outraged all the rightwing talking heads on AM hate radio and the Fox cable news. Meanwhile, all of the top officials of the Reagan administration who broke all sorts of laws in backing the murderous Nicaraguan contras did token time in country club prisons. I guess the lesson is if you are going out to kill people, you should do it on a wholesale basis and wrap yourself in the American flag.


  1. Speaking of John Hinckley, apparently something similar happened in France after the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser killed his wife in 1980. The French courts ruled him to be psychiatrically unfit to stand trial, so he spent most of the remainder of his life in psychiatric institutions and nursing homes. The Althusser caused a big uproar in the French media which apparently led to changes in that country’s laws concerning the insanity defense.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — July 17, 2015 @ 1:10 am

  2. Simply type neurolaw into the google. While glaciers are melting, changes in the criminal law proceed glacially, but the fissures are deepening.

    Comment by Ian Murray — July 17, 2015 @ 1:32 am

  3. Craziness has always been a highly subjective Catch 22 during Capitalist Modernity. That was the brilliance captured by the late great author Joseph Heller, who like Howard Zinn was a WW2 Air Force bomber vet, whose novel Catch 22 was the very first utterance anywhere in popular culture that Uncle Sam was far from the good guy during that war, that in fact he was probably insane insofar as he mindlessly bombed civilian villages in Italy and made deals like trading pilots’ silk parachutes to Egyptian speculators for inedible chocolate covered cotton balls.

    Just like Charlie didn’t surf, Hitler would never earn an insanity plea, even though he was mad as a hatter, yet even mad hatters back in the day had the excuse of being subjected to the relentless fumes of hat glue vapors.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 17, 2015 @ 2:50 am

  4. The M’Naughten Rules – debated in the House of Lords – was a major advance in criminal law. Now even self-annointed “progressives” seem to relish, if secretly – their disappearance. Take for example, the NPR commentators earlier today or perhaps it was yesterday commenting knowingly on the fact that while his lawyers were out of the courtroom and he was left alone withot the jury being there his affect was – to them – normal for a change. The American intelligentsia is sailing in treacherous waters.

    Comment by Wayne Collins — July 17, 2015 @ 3:05 am

  5. robert saplolsky of stanford talks about criminal insanity from a neurobiological perspective here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLE71i4JJiM – from about 34 min maybe. he says m’naghten is 170 year old science and plenty of persons with frontal lobe damage can tell the difference between r/w but not have the capacity to choose based on that.

    Comment by jp — July 17, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

  6. The M’Naghten rules were formulated by eminent English judges to define an insanity defence in English law. M’Naghten himself however was almost certainly a supporter of Chartism. He employed a leading Glasgow Chartist in his wood turning workshop and, according to Dorothy Thompson, gave him time off work for his political activities. While M’Naghten claimed that the police were persecuting him on the orders of the Tories he may also have correct in that claim. As the saying ( Joseph Heller or whoever) goes” just because I’m paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me” Detail of M’Naghten here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_M%27Naghten BTW the previous definition of Criminal Insanity in English law (The Criminal Lunatics Act 1800) had been the result of the attempt by James Hadfield ,a soldier who had received severe head trauma during the (Counter) Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s, to shoot George III in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hadfields

    Comment by Derek Bryant — July 17, 2015 @ 10:47 pm

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