Least used, least successful, and yet the most contentious – insanity as a criminal defense strategy triggers complex debates. As it lies in the intersection of law and psychiatry, there are pros and cons under consideration if it presents a viable legal defense.
The case for an insanity defense
Most states, including South Carolina, use the M’Naghten Rule to test if an individual is legally insane. The test aims to establish that the accused’s mind is incapable of understanding the nature of the crime and cannot distinguish between right and wrong while committing the crime. Once proven, supporters argue that being not guilty by virtue of insanity provides a fair, humane approach to the mentally ill. They claim that subjecting the defendant to proper treatment in a mental health facility is better than imprisonment and eventual death. They further contend that securing the defendant within the confines of a mental institution for an indefinite period is a means to keep the public safe.
Under the conditional release program, otherwise known as mental health parole, the defendant from a maximum-security psychiatric facility may return as a member of society. Aside from mental health professionals monitoring, community supervision and procedural safeguards are in place.
The case against an insanity defense
Opponents maintain that the real tragedy is if criminals escape their heinous actions and do not receive appropriate punishment.
More than the facts of the case, there is a burden on the prosecution to prove that the offender is of sound mind during the commission of the crime. The burden of proof is a tedious task requiring time, resources, and professional medical expertise. Also, there is an expectation for the jury to determine appropriate sentencing by objectively assessing psychological evaluations, which may be beyond the scope of their competence.
An uncertain verdict
Landmark cases on juvenile insanity defense are pushing the dialogue regarding the issue’s pros and cons anew. Whether a youth or an adult offender, invoking an insanity defense carries lifelong consequences and necessitates utmost caution and guidance.