In 1843 Daniel M'naghten was acquitted in the murder of the English prime minister's secretary by reason of insanity, prompting then-Queen Victoria to call for a reappraisal of the law. The result was a standard adopted in both English and American courts, which can be summarized in a single question: Did the defendant know his conduct was wrong at the time he committed the crime? Unless a person was mentally disabled to the extent that they were unable to comprehend that they were committing a crime, they could still be found criminally responsible regardless of the presence of a severe mental illness.
The rule, established by the English House of Lords, states:
"Every man is to be presumed to be sane, and ... that to establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of mind, and not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong."
The M'Naghten Rule focuses on whether a criminal defendant (a) knew the nature of the crime or (b) understood right from wrong at the time it was committed. One of the two distinct criteria must be met in order for insanity to be an effective defense. Some courts differ as to whether the "wrong" in question refers to moral or legal wrong (or both). Additionally, some states have eliminated the first part of the test in which a defendant is ruled legally insane for not fully understanding what he or she has done.
More realistic standards were adopted by many states, including Texas, in the 1970's; the courts decided that even if the defendant knew their conduct was wrong, they would not be found guilty if they had been ''incapable of conforming their conduct'' to the requirements of the law. This more modern standard recognized that, as a result of a mental illness, an individual might know he or she is doing wrong but still lack the ability to keep from doing it. In 1981 John Hinckley shot and wounded President Ronald Reagan and three other men: Hinckley's acquittal by reason of insanity shocked the nation. Texas quickly dropped the element of ''conforming conduct'' and reverted to a strict ''knowledge-based'' standard almost as broad as the old M'Naghten rule.
The current Texas insanity defense and the requirements to raise the defense is codified in Texas Penal Code Section 8.01:
Insanity (a) It is an affirmative defense to prosecution that, at the time of the conduct charged, the actor, as a result of severe mental disease or defect, did not know that his conduct was wrong.
(b) The term “mental disease or defect” does not include an abnormality manifested only by repeated criminal or otherwise antisocial conduct.
The result is that a defendant rarely prevails on an insanity defense in Texas; few defendants, even those who are seriously mentally ill, delusional, and perhaps unable to control their behavior, are incapable of knowing at some basic level that their conduct is unlawful. If defendants know that their conduct is prohibited by law, or wrong in a legal sense, then they are sane for purposes of the Texas insanity defense. Consequently, many defendants who need long term psychiatric treatment and secure hospitalization are convicted and go to prison.
The Model Penal Code Test
In 1972 the American Law Institute (ALI) developed a new rule for insanity as part of the Model Penal Code. This rule, found in § 4.01 of the Code, says that a defendant is not responsible for criminal conduct where (s)he, as a result of mental disease or defect, did not possess a "substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law." Therefore, using the MPC test, a legally insane individual must have been diagnosed with a mental defect (typically by a court-appointed mental health professional) and either did not know right from wrong or lacked the ability to control an impulse that led to the incident.
The Model Penal Code test is much broader than the M'Naghten Rule and the Irresistible Impulse Test. Legal insanity requires the inability to understand right from wrong under the M'Naghten rule, while the Irresistible Impulse Test requires the inability to control an impulse. The MPC rule asks whether defendants are able to fully understand the criminality of their conduct or able to conform their conduct to the law, combining these two elements.
Twenty-one states currently use a modified version of the Model Penal Code rule.
Although the Texas Legislature hastily abandoned the ALI insanity test and returned to a limited variation of M'Naghten in 1983, there has never been a corresponding narrowing of the test for juveniles. Indeed, the insanity defense for juveniles in Texas is not designated as an "insanity defense" in the Family Code; instead, section 55.51, which delineates the provisions for the defense, is entitled "Lack of Responsibility for Conduct as a Result of Mental Illness or Mental Retardation" and provides the following standard:
"A child alleged by petition to have engaged in delinquent conduct or conduct indicating a need for supervision is not responsible for the conduct if at the time of the conduct, as a result of mental illness or mental retardation, the child lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of the child's conduct or to conform the child's conduct to the requirements of law."
This contrast between the Family Code and the Penal Code results in an anomalous situation in Texas: a juvenile defendant will have the benefit of an appropriate, modern insanity test, while an adult defendant only has available the old nineteenth-century M'Naghten right-wrong test, with all of its shortcomings.
In recent years, several organizations have called for Texas to restore a two-prong insanity standard that would include a volitional component; The National Alliance on Mental Illness "...supports the retention of the 'insanity defense' and favors the two- prong test that includes the volitional as well as the cognitive standard" and the Mental Health Association in Texas has urged that Texas change its insanity law.
The determination of sanity should not rely only on a century-old premise of whether the defendant knew right from wrong in the legal sense. This narrow definition ignores the medically recognized symptoms of mental illness, which often include powerful visual and auditory delusions. Any workable insanity defense should also incorporate the question of whether the defendant's mental illness impaired or altered the defendant's ability to understand or comply with legal definitions of right and wrong.
George Parnham is an expert on the defense of individuals with mental illness and a passionate advocate for legal reform of their treatment in the criminal justice system.
If you have been accused of a crime, please contact us today for a free consultation with an aggressive and resourceful criminal defense attorney. We will work tirelessly to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.
For more information visit Parnham & Associates.
THE TIME IS RIGHT TO REVISE THE TEXAS INSANITY DEFENSE: AN ESSAY ; Brian D. Shannon, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Charles ''Tex'' Thornton Professor of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law