Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

Gender Matters in the Insanity Defense

Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

Gender Matters in the Insanity Defense

Article excerpt

To focus on gender is to question everything. (1)


Gender has been well-established as a fruitful subject of research with an extensive body of literature. Yet some experts contend that, given the impact gender can have in a court of law, research involving gender and the law has been deficient. (2) In fact, in preparation for a special issue of Law and Human Behavior focused on gender issues, editors performed a search of the journal and located only 6 papers out of 293 between 1990 and 1996 that qualified as gender studies. (3) Of the six papers, none addressed gender and the jury. (4)

However in the last decade, gender has received more attention as a topic of research within the extra-legal context. (5) Extra-legal factors are those which do not constitute evidence, but which may nevertheless influence the jury in the disposition and sentencing of criminal cases. (6) Some examples of these factors include attractiveness, ethnicity and gender. (7) Although the effect of extra-legal factors on a jury has provoked disagreement among experts, (8) "there is a large and diverse body of factual data that documents the existence of various kinds of extra-evidential influences on real juries' decisions." (9)

Studies have examined the gender of an expert witness and the impact on jurors' decisions, (10) the effect of victim and juror gender in sexual abuse cases (11) and the relationship between the sex of the juror and the amount of evidence needed to reach a specific verdict. (12) Even so, the interaction between gender differences and the insanity defense is one area that merits much more attention than it has garnered thus far. There is a dearth of research into the differences between male and female jurors and insanity verdict decision-making. Furthermore, research on the relationship between the gender of the defendant and the gender of the juror is remarkably sparse. While numerous studies have examined juror gender and offender gender, few have focused on the interaction between these factors. (13)

In order to shed light on factors that affect a jury's decision-making in insanity cases, one must first explore perceptions of the insanity defense and how these attitudes are shaped and maintained. The importance of jury selection becomes especially evident in cases involving the insanity defense because individual biases may be polarized on the issue. (14) Once a juror is impaneled, a number of courtroom dynamics operate simultaneously, including the interaction between courtroom actors that can influence a juror's verdict. (15) Gender is one such factor that can influence the way a juror interprets the case facts and potentially affect the ultimate issue of verdict. (16)

The purpose of this Study is to broaden the investigation of the impact of gender differences within the context of the insanity defense. Specifically, the gender of the mock juror as well as the gender of the defendant is explored for any possible correlations in the determination of an insanity verdict. Due to the proven effect of gender in other empirical studies, further research is needed in this area to examine gender's potential effect on an insanity verdict.


Contemporary knowledge of the insanity defense can be traced to John Hinckley's trial for his assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. (17) The verdict, "Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity," (NGRI) is largely considered one of the most controversial legal decisions in the history of American criminal justice. (18) The scope and impact of Hinckley's insanity acquittal inspired intense reactions among the public and marked significant changes in the use of the insanity defense. (19) The verdict affected the areas of law, mental health and the complex relationship these two disciplines share within a court of law.

No previous reform campaign equaled the magnitude of reform following John Hinckley's acquittal. …

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