The Insanity Defense 1881 – US

The Insanity Defense 1881 – US

The Insanity Defense 1881 - US
Puck magazine commissioned this caricature of Guiteau for its July 13, 1881, cover. – The Insanity Defense 1881 – US

James Garfield (1831–1881), Charles Guiteau (1841–1882), United States v. Guiteau

In 1843, England was the birthplace of the insanity defense as a legal notion. Daniel M’Naghten attempted to murder British Prime Minister David Cameron, whom he claimed was plotting against him. The court acquitted him due to his psychosis, establishing the Mr. M’Naghten Rule.

It requires that a defendant be found not guilty of an offense if, at the time of the offense, his mental illness was severe enough to (1) impair his ability to know or understand the nature or quality of his criminal behavior, and (2) to jeopardize his ability to know or understand the legal or moral wrongfulness of his actions. In the United States, this two-pronged rule established the legal standard for an insanity defense.

After assassinating President James Garfield on July 2, 1881, a jury in the United States had to weigh the destiny of Charles Guiteau. Mr. Guiteau claimed to be an emissary of God when he shot the President throughout his trial.

When he killed the president, his defense team claimed that their client felt he was acting on a divine decree and obeying God’s mandate. He surely provided adequate proof of his strangeness to the jury. Even sang and performed poems in court, interrupting and criticizing his defense team, and he sought legal assistance from people in the courtroom.

Despite this, the defendant was convicted guilty of murder by the jury. They didn’t think he was insane enough to meet the M’Naghten criteria. Soon after, the courts in certain jurisdictions developed the Deific Degree Doctrine as an additional element to the insanity defense that may be legally addressed during insanity hearings if necessary.

Though not specifically recognized as a prong of the insanity defense legislation in California, a delusional belief in a divine mandate nonetheless necessitates an examination of its implications for a defendant’s understanding of moral wrongdoing. Because God is regarded the ultimate arbitrator of moral behaviour, beyond man-made rules, believing one has received a divine order might cloud one’s perception of moral virtue. The difficult point for juries to decide is whether the defendant truly felt he (or she) was being directed by God to transgress the law.

When individuals are polled on the insanity defense, the overwhelming majority indicate unhappiness with it, as well as mental health defenses in general. The general public believes it is employed by criminals to avoid receiving their “just deserts.” Given the media’s focus on instances like the Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) case I discussed in the last blog, this isn’t unexpected. Berkowitz first claimed he was slain on the orders of a demon who had been transferred to him through his neighbor’s dog.

He eventually revealed that it was a ruse. It is well-known examples like these that serve as models for insanity defense arguments. The facts, on the other hand, tell a different tale. The insanity defense is used in a very small percentage of cases, fewer than 1%. It is rejected by the trier of fact 75% of the time as a defense. I And the 25% of those deemed crazy have a clear history of serious mental diseases that were obviously active at the time of the crime.

One of the most difficult duties a forensic psychologist faces is conducting an insanity examination and offering a judgment on a defendant’s mental state at the time of a crime. It’s a heavy burden to bear, especially when the crime was terrible, the victim was brutalized or worse, family members were traumatized, and the legal ramifications for the criminal were severe. The devil is in the minutiae of facts and context, as well as a thorough grasp of the psychological elements that drove the actions in issue, as it is in many if not all difficult situations that beg to be understood. The forensic issue becomes considerably more difficult when the defendant asserts a deific degree claim.


The M’Naghten Rule (1843).


The Insanity Defense 1881 – US

A Brief History of the Insanity Defense

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)