One such occasion that dramatized the issue of insanity was the Long Island Railroad killings in 1993 when a disturbed man, named Colin Ferguson, became front-page news in media-rich New York City... It was a proceeding that angered many people and brought into the public arena once again, how the law deals with the issue of insanity. Ferguson was able to question many of the victims on the stand who actually saw him do the shooting but insisted he was innocent. He rambled on endlessly in open court accusing the police, the media and the American people of conspiring against him.
One of the most prominent cases that stuck out in recent Montana history is "State v. Cowan", where the defendant killed a woman in her cabin after suffering from a psychotic break because of paranoid schizophrenia. Several psychologists and psychiatrists agreed that Cowan did suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, but the court found him guilty of deliberate homicide and aggravated burglary and sentenced him to sixty years of prison. Cowan argued that "considering a defendant's insanity only for the purpose of reducing the degree of the crime of determining the punishment for the crime qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of due process" (Stimpson 1994).
The public is incorrect in its belief that insanity cases are typically resolved by a trial before a jury. That method of adjudication occurs only 14.4 percent of the time. Concurrently, the degree of consensus is much lower than that previously reported by scholars. Plea bargains occur in only 42.9 percent of cases, and when there is a plea bargain, it is usually to a conviction (87.9%) rather than an insanity acquittal (11.1%).
The majority of states have no set limit on the amount of time convicted defendants may spend in confinement as long as they meet the criteria that sent them to the facility initially. A similar fate may await those ruled incompetent to stand trial. At the infamous Matteawan State Hospital for the Insane in New York, a census was taken of 1,062 patients in the year 1965. It was found that 208 were being held from 20 to an incredible 64 years (Maeder, 1985, p. 119)
Next came the Durham standard or ‘product test’, a rule adopted by the United States Court of Appeals in 1954. It resulted from the case Durham v. U.S. and stated that “… an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or defect”. It was more relaxed and took into account the ‘irresistible impulse’ not covered in the M’Naghten Rules.
New Hampshire is the only state use the Durham standard, which has been criticized for being more lenient and difficult to implement. All other states, if they have an insanity defense, use original or modified versions of the M'Naghten Test or Model Penal Code. Here's a complete list of each state's stand on the issue. http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/the-insanity-defense-among-the-states.html
In 1886, the Parsons v. Alabama (81 AL 577, So 854 1886 AL) decision established additional criteria for the insanity defense. The court decided that a person could utilize the insanity defense if he or she could prove that "by reason of duress of mental disease he had so far lost the power to choose between right and wrong, and to avoid doing the act in question, as that his free agency was at the time destroyed. ". It became know as the "Irresistible Impulse Test" or as an earlier court in England called it, the "policeman at the elbow test."
The purpose of the Model Penal Code was to stimulate and assist legislatures in making a major effort to appraise the content of the penal law by a contemporary reasoned judgment—the prohibitions it lays down, the excuses it admits, the sanctions it employs, and the range of the authority that it distributes and confers. Since its promulgation, the Code has played an important part in the widespread revision and codification of the substantive criminal law of the United States.
Under the M'Naghten test of insanity, also called the "right-wrong test," a person was not criminally responsible if at the time of the crime, he did not know the nature of the act or that it was wrong. The jury was required to answer two questions: (1) did the defendant know what he was doing when he committed the crime?; or (2) did the defendant understand that his actions were wrong?
The insanity defense has its roots firmly embedded in centuries of legal tradition. As early as the 13th Century, the English Lord Bracton established the principle of mental deficiency in human behavior. He said that some people simply do not know what they are doing and act in a manner "as to be not far removed from the brute" (Menninger, 1968, p. 112)
One of the cornerstones of the criminal justice system in America is the concept of mens rea, a Latin phrase that translates to "state of mind." In order for a person to be held criminally liable in the courts, our system demands that that he or she must have criminal intent or awareness of the wrongfulness of the act. If a person is mentally ill and unable to tell the difference between right and wrong, for example, then he or she cannot be held criminally culpable in our society.
DENVER -- If James Holmes pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, prosecutors wanting to prove that he methodically carried out a deadly Colorado movie theater shooting have a difficult task before them: They must prove he is sane.
Unlike other states where the defense needs to prove insanity, prosecutors in Colorado are the ones who have to show that a defendant is sane - all without the ability of having their own experts examine Holmes.
An insanity defense is based on the theory that most people can choose to follow the law; but a few select persons cannot be held accountable because mental disease or disability deprives them of the ability to make a rational / voluntary choice. Such individuals need special treatment as opposed to prison; punishment is not likely to deter future antisocial conduct of these mentally diseased individuals.
It is claimed that the insanity plea is the most written about topic in the literature of English jurisprudence. Yet, ironically, there is observed an extreme dearth of empirical data relating to the plea. This situation seems particularly deplorable during a period in which the plea is subject to intense criticism by persons seeking to either substantially alter or abolish the plea.