Insanity Defense

The insanity defense is an excuse defense used in criminal trials. It means that the defendant was not or could not be responsible for their actions either during the time of the crime or permanently. One of the first cases of pleading insanity was in Auburn, New York. William Freeman was wrongfully accused of committing a theft. When they found the right man he still implicated Freeman in the theft and so Freeman fled jail. He was convicted of theft and escape and at the age of 16 he was sentenced to five years of labor at the state prison. After continuously insisting upon his innocence he was beaten in the head with a piece of wood by a guard. This left him mentally impaired. Shortly after Freeman was released a farmer and his family were murdered. Freeman was able to get a lawyer who was willing to make a case for insanity because he believed the mental state of the defendant should be taken into account. The court found him guilty saying that he was perfectly sane. Freeman died in his cell and an autopsy showed definite brain deterioration so the insanity case actually should have been sufficient.

The first viewpoint is that the insanity defense does not hold water. It is extremely difficult to figure out whether or not someone should be held responsible for their actions. It was pretty clear in the case above because after the autopsy it was definitely shown that there was brain deterioration. But in modern day cases, especially because the insanity defense is more widely known, it is hard to tell whether the claim should excuse the crime. For example, there have been cases of pedophilic behavior being the side effect of a brain tumor. Is that person then responsible for their actions or was it solely the tumor? There is significant neuroscience to back up the fact that the mental stability of the defendant often can remove a level of responsibility. There is a part in the brain called the orbiofrontal cortex which controls things like reasoning, impulse control, social integration, morals, etc. So when that area of the brain is damaged the result can be sociopathic behavior. So the science does support the insanity defense.

On the other hand, the science isn’t always perfect and there are still a lot of unknowns. In the case of a man who had a brain tumor and started watching child pornography when he was at home, the question was raised as to how much he could control his impulses. After all, he wasn’t watching it at work. Also, he didn’t tell anyone which raised further questions; maybe this is something he had already felt and the tumor brought it out. It becomes very subjective. The other societal issue is, even though it may have been out of their control at the time the damage was still done. The man supported the child porn industry. So what is the best way to handle an insanity defense? Should it take away the responsibility and punishment?