Examinations of Criminal Responsibility: Foundations in Mental Health Case Law

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Examinations of Criminal Responsibility: Foundations in Mental Health Case Law, by Richard I. Frederick, David F, Mrad and Richard I. DeMier (Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press, 2007), 292 pp., $39.95.

These three authors, all with Ph.D.s in Clinical Psychology and Certified in Forensic Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology have produced a reader-friendly book that will be helpful to mental health professionals as they study the issue of insanity and its impact on criminal justice.

What the authors have succeeded in doing is to take a look at the issue of how the courts, going back to Arnold (1724), Hadfield (1800), and M'Naughten (1843), have wrestled with the problem of seeking a balance between criminal responsibility and claims of insanity.

The authors have examined 22 cases in this research journey in order to provide a reasonably clear understanding of what insanity means in the criminal justice system.

The history of how the courts have attempted to achieve that delicate balance begins with Arnold, the famous case in which Justice Tracy held that in order to escape punishment for a crime the defendant had to have the lack of understanding akin to that of a wild beast. In Hadfield, where the defendant had attempted to kill the king, it was held that the defendant had met the wild beast test. The authors note that the key difference in the cases was that in the former the defendant acted pro se while in the latter there was excellent defense counsel.

The last of the three cases that the authors used as a foundational basis for the book was M'Naughten where the defendant successfully interposed a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. The standard for an insanity defense was propounded as a result of that case and has come to us some 160 years later as the most prevalent insanity defense in the United States.

Following M'Naughton, the authors examined cases where the court had to deal with the question of what constitutes mental disease as, for example, in Pike v. New Hampshire (1810) where it was decided that insanity without expert testimony should not be considered a product of alcoholism. Also examined was Parsons v. Alabama (1886) where the court had to deal with the problem of irresistible impulse.

Any examination of the insanity defense must, of course, inevitably include relevant applications of the Constitution. The authors reviewed a number of federal cases as part of their research. These cases included Powell v. Texas (1968) where the Supreme Court resisted the creation of an insanity defense set in constitutional terms. The decision rendered in Finger v. Nevada (2001) where the Supreme Court held that the insanity defense was a constitutional right was also reviewed. …