10 Uses of the Insanity Defense

Andrea Yates being escorted into a police station after the drowning of her five children.
© Mike Stewart/Sygma/Corbis

In 2001, Andrea Yates drowned her five young children in the bathtub of her Houston home while experiencing severe postpartum depression. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Pleading insanity didn't help Jack Ruby, the man who killed President Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, though -- the jury found him guilty of murder and convicted him. Who's to judge another person's sanity? In the end, it all comes down to how convincing their argument is.

When you use the insanity defense, you're pleading that you are not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty by reason of insanity, or some variation along those lines, depending on the state in which you're charged. If you can prove you were legally insane at the time you committed the crime for which you're on trial, you can expect to be sentenced to psychiatric treatment rather than convicted and imprisoned.


We have an insanity defense to help protect people with mental illness. As you'll see, though, convincing a jury of your insanity is tricky, and only about 1 percent of cases that use the insanity defense are successful (and of that successful 1 percent, only about 15 to 25 percent of those cases are acquittals) [source: Lilienfeld]. Societies have been using some form of the insanity defense throughout history, and we're going to begin our list with Richard Lawrence, the man who tried to assassinate President Andrew Jackson.

10: Richard Lawrence

This illustration shows Lawrence’s attempt on President Andrew Jackson’s life on Jan. 30, 1835.

Richard Lawrence, a house painter in his mid-30s, was the first man to be charged for the assassination attempt on an American president, Andrew Jackson. On Jan. 30, 1835, Lawrence shot at Jackson in the Capitol Rotunda but his derringer -- and then his backup derringer -- misfired, giving Jackson opportunity to retaliate with his cane.

Lawrence was found to have delusional thinking, including the belief he was the king of England and that Jackson had killed his father. He was acquitted by reason of insanity and committed to a mental asylum, but the experience left Jackson suspicious. The president believed that because he opposed the national bank of the U.S., the Whig Party was trying to remove him from office.


9: Daniel M'Naghten

M’Naghten believed that Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, pictured in this engraving, was conspiring against him.
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Daniel M'Naghten believed that Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel was conspiring against him. In 1843 in London, he shot and killed the secretary to the British prime minister -- but he meant to kill the prime minister. M'Naghten was tried and acquitted by reason of insanity, and sentenced to spend his life confined in Bedlam, the first mental asylum in Europe.

Due to public outcry over his acquittal, the M'Naghten rule was established by the House of Lords, which stated if a person charged with a crime was unable to distinguish right from wrong while in the act of committing that crime, he can plead the insanity defense and prove he was not sane at the time. The M'Naghten rule was the standard method of determining a person's sanity in the eyes of the law for more than 100 years after the M'Naghten case, until John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate now-former President Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster -- we'll get in more detail about Hinckley later on.


8: Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound in Paris in 1923, two years before he moved to Italy.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

It's quite possible that Ezra Pound was not actually insane; rather, he just didn't want to stand trial for treason.

American poet Ezra Pound is well known for leaving an indelible mark on modern poetry, but you may not know he was also a controversial political creature. Pound admired fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and moved to Italy in 1925 where he began writing and broadcasting pro-fascist, anti-Semitic, anti-Roosevelt radio commentaries during WWII. The American government considered this an act of treason, and Pound was arrested and imprisoned in Italy after the end of war.


After Mussolini's death, Pound was extradited to the U.S., facing charges that he aided American enemies during WWII. He pleaded insanity, was found not to be competent to stand trial, and was hospitalized at St. Elizabeth's in Washington, D.C. where he remained until 1958.

Pound may have been a narcissistic fellow, but whether or not he was insane is still debated today -- new documentation has scholars and mental health professionals pointing fingers at the abuse of the psychiatric system and the power of his literary friends for enabling Pound to skirt being tried for treason.

7: Anthony and William Esposito

Anthony Esposito on Jan. 16, 1941, as he was brought before a police identification line-up.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

It was the New York police commissioner who would nickname brothers Anthony and William Esposito 'the mad dog killers,' a description that would catch on in the press. On Jan. 14, 1941, the Esposito brothers held up office manager Alfred Klausman for the $649 payroll he was carrying, shooting and killing him in the elevator of an office building in Manhattan. What followed was a spectacular mid-day gun chase along Fifth Avenue, with the pair running and shooting in and out of department stores and taxis -- William, shot in the leg, fell to the ground, and while pretending to be dead surprised, shot and killed the policeman who chased him. Fifth Avenue shoppers and pedestrians overtook William, beating him unconscious, and police arrested Anthony in a convenience store nearby.

During their trial, the brothers made an effort to convince the court they were insane; they barked, howled and made other animal noises, drooled and banged their heads on the table. But the barking and drooling wasn't compelling evidence to the jury, and the brothers were both found guilty of first-degree murder. The two continued their behaviors, including speaking in gibberish and undertaking a hunger strike, while incarcerated at Sing Sing until both were put to death by electrocution in 1942.


6: Dan White

Happier times: Dan White and his wife Mary Ann jogging in San Francisco on Nov. 21, 1978, the year before he assassinated Moscone and Milk.
© Bettmann/Corbis

Dan White assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected official, at City Hall in 1979. White was acting because the mayor refused to reinstate him to the Board of Supervisors after he resigned only one year into his position.

White pleaded diminished capacity. In court, his lawyers argued that White had been depressed and was unable to control his impulses at the time of the crime because his depression over his Board position had left the formerly health-conscious 32-year old on the couch watching TV and eating doughnuts, soda and Twinkies. You might know Dan White as the man who pleaded the "Twinkie Defense." The jury, however, found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and in the end, White served five years in state prison. White was released from prison in 1984, and in 1985 he committed suicide.


5: John Hinckley, Jr.

John Hinckley, Jr. standing across the street from the White House in 1981.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

It was John Hinckley, Jr.'s assassination attempt on President Reagan outside the Washington Hilton in 1981 that ignited a change in the U.S.'s way of thinking about how a person's insanity is evaluated and determined in the eyes of the law. Hinckley was tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 and confined to a psychiatric hospital. The verdict stunned the country -- a poll at the time found 76 percent of Americans felt Hinckley should have been convicted and incarcerated -- and more than 40 bills went before Congress in an effort to put an end to the insanity defense [source: Lilienfeld].

The insanity defense was not abolished, though, and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act (CCCA) was passed in 1984. Under the mental health provisions in the CCCA, a defendant must prove that because of mental illness or mental defect he did not have the cognitive or moral ability to comprehend his criminal acts at the time of the crime. The competency of the defendant must be determined (including competency to stand trial, to plead guilty or no contest, and to waive counsel, as well as competency at sentencing and during appeal), and sentencing is to be determined under the included Insanity Defense Reform Act, which sets sentencing guidelines intended to protect mentally ill criminals.


4: Jeffrey Dahmer

Dahmer’s July 23, 1991 mug shots.
© Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS

Just as John Hinckley, Jr.'s successful use of the insanity defense stunned the nation, Americans were also surprised when Jeffrey Dahmer's insanity plea was rejected.

Dahmer was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of first-degree intentional homicide between 1978 and 1991. All were young men whom he not only murdered but also mutilated (some he attempted to lobotomize while they were still alive, others he molested) and dismembered, keeping their heads and genitals in his refrigerator -- to be eaten at a later date. Sometimes, he had sex with the corpses.


Dahmer's case went to trial in 1992, and while he originally he pleaded not guilty, he changed his mind and his plea to guilty by virtue of insanity. The jury, however, was not convinced of Dahmer's insanity at the time of his crimes, found him guilty on all charges, and sentenced him to 15 consecutive life terms.

In 1994 while on prison work duty, Dahmer was killed by fellow inmate Christopher Scarver.

3: Lorena Bobbitt

Lorena Bobbitt broke down on the stand during her trial in early 1994.
© Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Corbis

In June 1993, Lorena Bobbitt infamously cut off her husband's penis with a kitchen knife. She then drove away, throwing the penis out the car window, later to be found alongside the highway and reattached to its original owner.

Lorena pleaded self-defense, claiming her actions were because her husband, John, had raped and abused her for years, and she had post-traumatic stress disorder. A jury found Lorena not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, and she was sent to a psychiatric hospital where she remained for 45 days. If found guilty, Lorena could have been sentenced to 20 years in prison.


John denied the charges, and was acquitted of assaulting Lorena.

2: Andrew Goldstein

Most people don’t think too much about the inherent dangers of standing on a subway platform awaiting a train, but Kendra Webdale’s death was a grim reminder of this everyday risk.
© Jon Hicks/Corbis

Andrew Goldstein pushed Kendra Webdale in from of the N train at the 23rd Street station in New York City on Jan. 3, 1999 during a psychotic episode.

Goldstein was a rising star as a teenager, attending the Bronx High School of Science, but began having delusions during his freshman year of college. In 1989, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after pushing his mother; Goldstein was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After his release, he continued to experience delusions, psychosis and paranoia, and his violent behavior continued. In 1996, he was hospitalized for attacking a woman on a subway, and would continue to spend time in and out of care between then and the day he found himself in the same subway station as Webdale. In fact, Goldstein was voluntarily hospitalized a total of 13 times in 1997 and 1998, the two years before he killed Webdale, and was released into outpatient care just a few weeks before the attack [source: Magnus, PBS].


Goldstein's been on trial three times for the murder of Webdale. He pleaded insanity in his first trial, which ended with a hung jury, and again during his second trial in 2000, where the jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. After the highest court threw out his second case due to unsubstantiated testimony, Goldstein went to trial for the third time in 2005 -- this time he pled guilty to first degree manslaughter, and was sentenced to 23 years in prison plus 5 years of probation.

Goldstein's case inspired Kendra's law, New York state legislation that allows courts to order involuntary outpatient treatment for anyone with severe mental illness and a mental illness and treatment history suggesting he or she may not be able to live safely within the community without supervision.

1: John Delling

Even though Delling’s case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, his petition was denied, and he is unable to use the insanity defense in Idaho, where his crime took place.
© Joseph Sohm/Visions of America/Corbis

In 2007, John Delling shot three men, killing two and wounding the third, concerned someone was stealing his powers [source: Boone]. Delling is a paranoid schizophrenic who experiences severe delusions and violent outbursts, and he is serving two life sentences in solitary confinement and without parole in the Idaho prison system as his punishment -- despite the prosecution and the judge agreeing that his mental illness both led to and impaired his understanding of his crimes. Why didn't Delling use the insanity defense? Because Idaho, where he was convicted, doesn't recognize a person's right to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

Delling's case has put the spotlight on whether or not the insanity defense is a Constitutional right, protected under the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments. Delling appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, which in 2011 upheld 4th District Judge Deborah Bail's original ruling. In 2012, Delling's lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in November 2012 the petition was denied, continuing to keep the insanity defense out of Idaho.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Uses of the Insanity Defense

I admit that I never knew Andrew Jackson was so tough -- how did I miss this all these years? While most of us would likely duck and cover -- or do whatever we could to get out of there, and fast -- when a man points a loaded gun at us, Jackson instead attacked his attacker and beat him with his cane. How times, and security, have changed.

Related Articles

More Great Links

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