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2-Minute Law School: Insanity Defense



Hi. Professor Albert here for this week’s edition of THELAW.TV’s 2-Minute Law School. This week, we’re going to discuss the insanity defense.

In criminal trials, the insanity defense is used when the defendant claims they are not responsible for their actions due to mental health problems, such as psychiatric illness or mental handicap.The insanity defense is based on evaluations by forensic mental health professionals with the appropriate test according to the jurisdiction. The expert’s testimony guides the jury, but they are not allowed to testify to the accused’s criminal responsibility, as this is a matter for the jury to decide. Similarly, mental health practitioners are restrained from making a judgment on the issue of whether the defendant is or is not insane.

In the case of James Holmes, the suspect in the deadly Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting in July 2012, the insanity defense seems to be a viable option. Upon his arrest, Holmes identified himself as the Joker from the Batman movies and upon further investigation, was discovered to have been on a large quantity of the prescription painkiller Vicodin, which can cause euphoria, paranoia, and potentially hallucinations. While committing a crime under the use of drugs or alcohol may not qualify for someone to use the insanity defense, Holmes reportedly reached out to a psychiatrist moments before the shooting. It was also discovered that Holmes was seeing a university psychiatrist while enrolled at the University of Colorado, who reported concerns to campus police. But, due to doctor-patient privilege, the psychiatrist may not be able to testify.

Each state and federal court system currently uses a battery of tests to determine whether the insanity defense is valid in a particular case. For the case of James Holmes, the state of Colorado uses The M’Naghten rule, a test adopted from a case in British The House of Lords in 1843. The test is used to determine whether or not the defendant knew what they were doing at the time of the crime. If Holmes’ defense can successfully prove that he was unaware of this wrongdoings, he could enter an insanity plea. However, Colorado has another criteria called the irresistible impulse. The irresistible impulse says that even if Holmes knew his actions were wrong, he could still be considered insane if he was unable to stop himself.

In the United States justice system, the insanity plea appears in less than one percent of all criminal cases. Some states have begun to ban the use of the insanity defense. A criminal defendant may plead insanity in federal court, and in state courts for every state except Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah. The insanity defense is a complicated subject due to the underlying differences in philosophy between psychologists and legal professionals. In the United States, a psychologist or other mental health professional is often consulted as an expert witness in insanity cases. While they can provide insight, they are not responsible for answering legal questions and cannot make any legal judgment upon the defendant.

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