Should Courts Instruct Juries as to the Consequences to a Defendant of a "Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity" Verdict?

Article excerpt


In Shannon v. United States,(1) the United States Supreme Court held that under the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 (IDRA), courts need not instruct juries on the consequences to defendants of a verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity (NGI)."(2) The Court first held that the IDRA contains no provision requiring such an instruction.(3) The Court also ruled that general federal practice did not mandate such an instruction.(4) This Note argues that the Court properly held that the IDRA does not require such an instruction, even though its legislative history implies that Congress envisioned that courts would give it. This Note further argues that the absence of empirical evidence indicating that jurors commonly misunderstand the nature of an NGI verdict supports the Court's position that general federal practice does not require the instruction. Finally, this Note contends that the longstanding proscription against telling jurors the consequences of their verdict remains in the absence of empirical evidence indicating that such an instruction might aid the defendant.


To properly assess the Court's decision in Shannon v. United States, it is necessary to examine three governing factors: the role of the jury throughout history; the effect that the passage of the IDRA had on the insanity defense; and various federal circuit court decisions regarding instructing the jury on the legal consequences of an NGI verdict.


The modern jury finds its roots in eleventh century England, when courts initiated a practice of calling the defendant's neighbors to testify about various facts of the case at bar.(5) Eventually, courts began to ask these witnesses, known collectively as "the presenting jury," to determine whether the facts warranted a verdict of guilty or not guilty.(6) By the fourteenth century, the process had developed to the point where the jury that returned the verdict (known as the "petit jury") was different from the group of people who testified.(7) As a result, the jury's verdict became based not on the knowledge of its own members, but on the knowledge of other witnesses.(8) For the first time, the jury assumed its current role as the finder of fact.(9)

The United States inherited the jury in this form from Great Britain. After the Revolutionary War, the Framers recognized the right to trial by jury as fundamental to the protection of individual liberty.(10) The Constitution embodies this recognition in the Sixth and Seventh Amendments.(11)

At the time the Constitution was framed, however, the boundaries between the role of the jury and the role of the judge lacked clear definition. Courts generally upheld the presumption that the jury functioned solely as a factfinder, while the judge remained the arbiter of the law.(12) At the same time, however, the judge commonly instructed juries that they possessed the right to determine the law as well as the facts, and that they could reject the judge's determination of the law.(13)

In the mid-nineteenth century, courts began to curb this virtually unfettered power of the jury with the use of such mechanisms as the directed verdict and the special verdict.(14) Finally, the United States Supreme Court, which had previously upheld the jury's power to decide both the facts and the law, ruled that in federal criminal cases the jury ought to accept the judge's instructions on the law.(15) Thus, while the jury still had the ability to disregard its instructions without fear of punishment, it no longer possessed the Court's sanction to do so.(16)

This view of the proper disposition of judicial power between the judge and the jury persists today. Under this formulation, the legal consequences of a particular verdict are a question of law, within the exclusive province of the judge.


Prior to the passage of the IDRA in 1984, most federal jurisdictions did not distinguish a verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity" from their standard "not guilty" verdict. …