The Insanity Plea: History and Implications Essay

2393 Words Apr 27th, 2011 10 Pages
Since the beginning of Anglo-American law, the proposition that some criminal defendants should not be found guilty of their crimes by reason of mental instability has been a well established judicial action throughout centuries of jurisdiction. Even though the original intent of this practice was to soften the harsh consequences of capital punishments, the psychiatric state of persons convicted of crimes quickly became an important mechanism of social regulation. The justification for this mechanism lies in the assumption that the criminally insane are irrational and therefore non-responsible of their crimes. As we examine the history and implications of the insanity plea, a few questions should be kept in mind---1. How can we be sure …show more content…
This was actually a foiled attempt to assassinate Sir Robert Peel, the prime minister of England. One question that should be raised is the mens rea of the defendant---If he intended to assassinate the prime minister, doesn’t that qualify him as being guilty of criminal intent? In his defense, M’Naughten claimed that the prime minister was responsible for his personal and financial misfortune. During the trial, nine witnesses testified that he was insane, and the jury proceeded in his acquittal. The jury found him “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Queen Victoria was disgruntled with the outcome, and
“she requested that the House of Lords review the verdict with a panel of judges. The judges reversed the jury verdict, and the formulation that emerged from their review---that a defendant should not be held responsible for his actions if he could not tell that his actions were wrong at the time he committed them—became the basis of the law governing legal responsibility in cases of insanity in England” (
As a result, the M’Naughten rule was embraced and upheld by American courts and legislatures for more than 100 years, until the mid-20th century. As of 1998, “25

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