The Insanity Defense: A Critical Assessment of Law and Policy in the Post-Hinckley Era

The Insanity Defense: A Critical Assessment of Law and Policy in the Post-Hinckley Era

The Insanity Defense: A Critical Assessment of Law and Policy in the Post-Hinckley Era

The Insanity Defense: A Critical Assessment of Law and Policy in the Post-Hinckley Era


No area of criminal law has been the subject of more controversy than the insanity defense. The Insanity Defense is a clear assessment of this issue as it exists in the 1980s. It provides the reader with a basis for understanding and evaluating the legislative and judicial responses to the factors that have stirred this controversy. Simon and Aaronson begin with a detailed historical overview. They discuss the necessity of expert witnesses in the actual trial and probe into the jury's role and responsibility. They describe the various movements that have been used to abolish the insanity defense, as well as assess the use and interpretation of the defense in other nations.


The American public was stunned when on the fateful afternoon of March 30, 1981, they learned through instant media coverage that John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Fifteen months later, when the jurors returned a verdict of "not guilty, by reason of insanity," the American public was stunned even more; the verdict was received with disbelief and bitter criticism. As the presiding judge over Hinckley's trial, within hours of the verdict and for weeks thereafter, I received a flood of mail, expressing outrage and shock that the would-be assassin had been "freed" to an indefinite commitment to a mental hospital.

During the nearly two-month trial, the jurors viewed video accounts of the aborted attempt on the life of the president departing from a speaking engagement at a midtown hotel. They also heard brief testimony from Hinckley's parents describing their son's lifestyle, behavior patterns, and the problems that beset him from early childhood through young adulthood. However, for the greater part of the trial the jurors were exposed to weeks of conflicting and irreconcilable testimony from psychiatrists, psychologists, neuro-psychiatrists and other experts. Even though the experts were cautioned at the outset that the jurors were a group of lay persons, at times, much of their testimony was prolix, toilsome, and far from enlightening.

After several days of careful deliberation, the jurors concluded that they had a reasonable doubt as to Hinckley's mental state at the time of the assassination attempt; therefore, he should not be held criminally responsible for the crimes charged in the indictment. In reaching that verdict, the 12 lay persons respected their sworn obligation as jurors and applied the court's instructions of law to the testimony they had heard during the course of the trial.

In view of the public outrage over the verdict, together with the charged political and social climate of the time, it was not surprising that the insanity plea was the immediate target of relentless attacks from all sources. For many, the defense was a clear manifestation of the failure of our criminal justice system to punish individuals who have clearly violated the law. Others argued stridently that reliance upon the defense was the principal cause for many of our urban crime problems. Condemning a "soft on crime" mentality and crying for . . .

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