The Insanity Defense History

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An analysis of the history and development of the insanity defense may initiate a greater understanding of its advantages, drawbacks, and social, economic, and political repercussions. The earliest evidence of the insanity defense appears as early as the third century, in Roman, Greek, and Hebrew doctrines (Shea, 2001). Early Roman law stated that those who commit crimes without evil intent should not be held criminally responsible for those crimes. Furthermore, the Roman law Lex Aquila maintained that, “(A) man who, without negligence or malice, but by some accident, causes damage, goes unpunished” (Rosner, 2003).
The insanity defense was first used in a courtroom around the time of Aristotle in 350 BC, though at this time it was mainly used
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Written by William Lambarde in 1581, the premise of the document was to establish a legal distinction between individuals who could and could not understand the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. Lambarde wrote a formal “test” of insanity, which declared, “If a madman or a natural fool (congenitally retarded), or a lunatic in the time of his lunacy (episode of disorder), or a child that apparently hath no knowledge of good nor evil do kill a man, this is no felonious act...for they cannot be said to have any understanding will” (Torry & Billick, 1999, pg. …show more content…
In the 17th century, eventual Lord Chief Justice of England Matthew Hale suggested that there were four separate kinds of “insanity” properly acknowledged by the law: (1) “Idiocy,” which encompassed individuals with developmental disabilities or severe mental retardation; (2) “Melancholy,” also referred to as depression; (3) “Total alienation of the mind” or “perfect madness,” which we in modern terms would identify as chronic psychosis, schizophrenia, or dementia; and (4) “Phrenesis,” which was described as sporadic stints of schizophrenic behavior or other episodic psychiatric illnesses, such as bipolar disorder (Shea, 2001). Despite the difficulty that came with distinguishing between the two, Hale specified that only “idiocy” and “total alienation of the mind” could be included in a valid legal defense before the court. This specification was likely influenced by Hale’s belief that an individual’s state of mind (as opposed to the nature of the act) was the only relevant factor in deciding whether legal insanity could be used as a criminal defense. Due to the fact that the nature of a criminal act was too complex to prove, an individual’s capacity to differentiate between right and wrong became the main criteria for testing

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