The Insanity Defense

The common standard for an insanity defense is to answer the question of whether the defendant knew the difference between right and wrong.  If the answer to that is yes, then it is commonly believed, at least by legal standards, that the defendant is not insane.  Yet, does that truly mean that someone is not insane?  The Supreme Court has ruled over the last several years that minors, the mentally retarded, and the insane are not to be executed.

While this is the legal standard when it comes to criminal offenses, that standard is often, or should be applied in other areas involving mental illness. And isn't insanity a mental illness?  However, the question lies with, does the simple act of knowing the difference between right and wrong truly the test of insanity?

Let's take hoarding for example.  Over the last several years hoarding itself has been classified as a mental illness.  Along with the act of what I call the "visible" hoarding, hoarders all often exhibit many other types of behaviors that include the need for control of people and surroundings, manipulation, needing to be a victim and narcissism. For the most part the acts of a hoarder are not criminal.  Sure, there have been cases where charges of things such as the endangerment of a child or elderly have been attempted based on the condition of a home, but I have never heard of someone directly tying a hoarder to a major crime like murder.  That is not to say that there are not hoarders who have murdered as I am sure there probably have been. It just means that whether it be the professionals, the media, the police, or what not it is not something that they directly relate on a regular basis.  It is not like hoarding is the "gateway" to murder.  But, these traits can also be found in many of those involved in criminal behavior.  Many of the "professionals" argue that hoarders do not realize that their behavior or their living conditions are wrong.  However, two other traits that hoarders seem to share are the need to hiding their homes and the need to make excuses for not just the condition of their homes, but why they have the things they have.  If we were to apply the same standard that lawyers use against criminal defendants as to knowing the difference between right and wrong, to hoarders, we would often find legally that hoarders were not insane.  Yet, their behavior is not normal and hoarding is considered to be a mental illness. So, the question then lies, are they insane or not?

Now, let's apply that standard to a true criminal..... Jeffrey Dahmer.  I chose him because he is one of the more known, as well as more extreme in his behaviors.  He murdered 17 men and boys from 1978 and 1991.  He engaged in the acts of necrophilia (the act of having sex with a corpse) and cannibalism (the act of eat a corpse) with many of his victims.  The state of Wisconsin does not have the death penalty so he was never in fear of being executed there, where most of his crimes occurred.  However, there was still the issue of determining if he was insane during his trial. Despite the fact that he pleaded "guilty but insane" a jury determined that he was in fact sane and he was sentenced to 15 life terms.  He was then sent to Ohio to face a single charge of murder where he plead guilty and received another life term.  I would gander to guess seeing as he had just been through the process in Wisconsin and the fact that Ohio did in fact have the death penalty is the reason for the guilty plea.  So, a man who murdered over a dozen men, then had sex with their corpses, to cut them up and put them in his freezer for tomorrow nights dinner was sane.  Of course right? Clearly sane and normal people act in this manner.  But a jury found him that way because they believed he knew the difference between right and wrong.  Was it because he hid the corpses?  Was it because once when a young man ran into the street naked and found cops Dahmer convinced the officers that they were lovers and he would control the "victim"?  Didn't we just discuss those same two issues (hiding and excuses) when talking about hoarding?  Yet, they have a mental illness and Dahmer did not?

I should make pretty clear that it is not like I ever then, or even now, thought Dahmer should have been allowed to go out and walk free. That is not the point of discussing the insanity defense.  I am not even saying that I do not believe that some of them should have been executed. What I am saying is that the standard of determining if someone is insane from a legal standard just seems wrong.  It is not a matter of determining if what these people did was wrong. It is a matter of whether we do not use that standard legally in order to either lock people away for life or even in some cases execute them.



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