Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Insanity Defense

A few words on this.

Y'all know me, and y'all know that I believe that the only acceptable number of prisoner executions is zero. But that is a perfect world number, and we do not live in a perfect world. Unfortunately, I do believe it is sometimes required of society to take the lives of the incarcerated.

I know it sounds heartless, but I believe it is necessary, despite all my religious belief to the contrary. But religion is a utopian philosophy, religion is the compass light that tells us how things could be better. Civil government, however, must take a far more pragmatic approach.

Here is a tragic case of a mother who killed her three young children, but is certifiably crazy. I mean, she knowingly killed them in order for them to get into heaven and be raised by God instead of her. Because of the insanity defense, she will most likley be looked after for the rest of her life in a state mental institution - undergoing incarceration indefinitely.

Let me say that I am proud of our society for trying to temper vengeful and emotional justice with compassion. The existence of the insanity defense at all, as problematic as it has turned out to be, is a testament that our nation strives to uncover the natures of our better angels.

However, and again - I may sound heartless, but I do not believe that represents justice for those children. There comes a time, I believe, that your crimes outweigh the compassion society employs in order to take care of the infirm of mind. I believe there is a barrier that can be crossed where society and civil government are not acting draconian to demand a prisoner execution, when the action isn't to be used as a deterrent but as a means to its own end, that society and civil government are responsible for persuing such action.

I think such action should be persued in this case, despite the woman's mental instability. That is one of the reasons I believe in keeping the death penalty, though rarely to be employed, as a legal punishment to certain crimes.


patsbrother said...

Point of clarification: are you against the insanity defense altogether or just in this case? I'll tenet (though disagree) with the one, but I would take great umbrage to (and attempt much belittlement of) the other.

Patrick Armstrong said...

I'm not against the insanity defense at all, it is an important part of American jurisprudence, i think. However, there are some times that finding someone 'not guilty for reason of insanity' should not be enough. Perhaps there could be a third way for the courts to determine that these individuals may not have known what they were doing, or the specific ramification, but that those conditions don't excuse them to escape the most severe of penalties.

Perhaps consider them guilty because of insanity?

This case in particular, even though the woman probably is insane, I don't think that should negate the possibility of the prosecution for seeking the death penalty.

patsbrother said...

The premise underlying the insanity defense (and other defenses, such as accident) is the principled decision to penally punish only those who have acted with criminal intent. If you disagree with the application of the insanity defense in any case, that's cool: we just need to change our premise (to, say, punishment of volitional acts).

If, however, you want a squishy, subjective, this-premise-applies-only-when-I-don't-think-it-should kind of rubric, you are throwing all predictability and principled reasoning in the air and send the criminal justice system wandering off into a foggy realm of indecision.

Either you hold that those unable to tell right from wrong are fundamentally unable to act with criminal intent and you maintain the insanity defense; or you don't, and you give up the insanity defense altogether. There is no Third Way (unless you prefer your laws irrational and unprincipled).

What absolutely amazes me is that you do not advocate the application of the death penalty for everyone convicted of first degree murder, and yet you do advocate (due to one of the "rare" justifications for it) the application of the death penalty against someone you yourself describe as "certifiably crazy", who killed not out of malice but out of insane love.

What a glorious Third Way: those that knowingly commit murder retain their lives; those that are unwitting actors to the voices in their head get the chair. What marvelously compassioned, well-reasoned, and well-measured principles!

Dante said...

PB, are you doing that learn-a-word-a-day thing? Just curious because you've used the somewhat uncommon word rubric twice within a half hour in two separate posts. Was that your word yesterday? What's your word for today? :)

From what I've read, I'm not so sure an insanity defense applies here. She threw her kids off a bridge because she thought God had commanded her to sacrifice her children. She knew full well she was killing those children. That's what a sacrifice is. I don't see how you can make the argument she didn't show intent to commit the crime.

If she had for example thought her children were boxes of tea that she had to throw into the harbor, then maybe I could see an insanity defense, but in a case where she killed her kids because she thought she had to kill her kids, I don't think it's going to work out for her.

patsbrother said...

My posts were in response not to a discrete case but my brother's call for a selective application of the insanity defense. I accepted all the things he put in his post as true; I did not read the article cited. Because arguing that something is inapplicable to one case is different from arguing we change the rules so that it is inapplicable in that one case. One involves discrete facts, one involves broader policy considerations.

Further, I am unsure based on what you have said that the insanity defense does not apply here.

For one to be criminally liable for something, both an actus reus and a mens rea are required. The first is the criminal act; the second is the criminal intent (I intend through this act to commit a crime). One can commit the act without having the intent, and one can have the intent without commiting the act.

The insanity defense, as I understand it, applies not only when someone literally does not know what they are doing, but also when someone does not understand what they are doing (when they are incapable of telling right from wrong, and identifying what they are doing is wrong). They do not possess the criminal intent. Thus, if someone earnestly believe they are making a sacrifice that God intends them to make, she probably does not understand that what she is doing is wrong. As many beleive that the only morality comes from God, and as there is kind of an analogous sacrifice-the-kids-if-God-asks-you-to Bible story on point, if you assume she thought God was commanding her, do you really believe she though what she was doing was wrong?

The mere intent to physically kill someone does not make you a murderer (see self-defense or defense of others); other more malignant intentions than the act itself are required.

Sorry for the rambling. And I picked up "rubric" from petallic, many moons ago. Word.

Dante said...

PB, I took the cheap shot at you in the first paragraph but wasn't clear enough that the proceeding paragraphs weren't aimed at you specifically but thanks for the reply. I see your point but I'm still not entirely convinced a jury would believe that she didn't think what she was doing was wrong.

"Sorry for the rambling. And I picked up "rubric" from petallic, many moons ago. Word."

Figures. The only time I've heard that word used in spoken conversation was my wife (who is a teacher) talking to her teacher friends. Then again, I'm a math guy. We get "metrics" which are pretty similar but based on objective rather than subjective measuring points. (And keep in mind that metric in this context does not specifically refer to the metric system of measurent. Inches, ounces, and even farthings are also metrics though not part of the metric system.)

Patrick Armstrong said...

What absolutely amazes me is that you do not advocate the application of the death penalty for everyone convicted of first degree murder, and yet you do advocate (due to one of the "rare" justifications for it) the application of the death penalty against someone you yourself describe as "certifiably crazy", who killed not out of malice but out of insane love.

The distinction here is that not everyone convicted of first degree murder was convicted based on rock solid evidence. I absolutely believe that the prosecution is within rights to seek the execution of anyone convicted of first degree murder with a rock solid case behind the conviction.

The insanity defense is only used in cases where the defendant is not contesting the fact that they killed someone but rather their state of mind at the time of the murder. There is a gulf of distance between "accidental death" and "not knowing the difference between right and wrong and killing someone."

I mean, maybe there needs to be no third way, perhaps judges and prosecutors all adequately explain the difference between "guilty as charged [despite mental deficiency]" and "not guitly for reason of insanity" and the intention requirements and punishment ramifications of each one.

As in: in this particular case especially, I do not think mental deficiency or insanity is enough to acquit this woman from the extreme government sanction of execution.

And here's two words of the day for you: "opinion" & "discussion."

petallic said...

Two quick points:

1. There is a fine line between religious and crazy, and the government has a hell of a job being forced to decide between the two. As referenced already, Abraham, case in point. Crazy or just really really faithful? I believe this woman had full knowledge of what she was doing, and the intent to go with it. We can't excuse crimes just because they were allegedly commissioned by God.

2. PB's use of "rubric" did indeed come from me. It's part of my daily vocabulary and therefore part of his as well. My bad, yo.