The idea of not guilty by reason of insanity has been in play in America’s legal justice system since the discovery of the many mental disorders. Not guilty by reason of insanity is determined by the capacity of the perpetrator at the time of the crime. It is in place, according to Cornell Legal Information Institute, because of society’s balance between believing “…that criminals should be punished for their crimes…,” but also believing that “…people who are ill should receive treatment for their illness.” There has been a line between the mentally ill and the criminally evil or criminally insane for ages, but nobody has ever seemed to easily decipher who lies above that line and who lies below that line. This defense sets in motion the help that victims of mental illness need to ensure that they are no longer a threat to themselves or society. When found not guilty by reason of insanity, those who are compelled by their illness to commit these crimes are sent to a psychiatric facility instead of sent to a maximum security prison where they would receive absolutely no help. Many perpetrators involved in crimes of passion attempt to use this defense by stating that they were mentally ill, even though their judgement was simply just clouded by anger, and it does not create an excuse for the heinous crime they have committed. Although, in some cases the perpetrator is actually suffering from a mental illness, and require the help that is needed in order to help with the illness and decrease the chance of that person hurting someone else ever again. The question still remains on both sides, whether someone is mentally ill or not, does it excuse or at least give a little bit on insight into why they committed the crime that has been put into question?
One of the biggest cases in history that emphasizes this question, was the trial of Andrea Yates. In the case of Andrea Yates, she was found guilty for the murder of her five children, until the verdict was eventually overturned in 2005. She was then found guilty by reason of insanity due to her multiple mental illnesses that she had been suffering from throughout the time of the crime, and throughout the trial. According to Diamond, in the article from Psychology Today, “Sympathy for the Devil,” Yates was suffering from postpartum depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and bulimia, which was the cause of her “…pathological guilt regarding herself and her performance as a mother.” These mental illnesses took over Yates’ life and eventually led her to murder her five children by drowning them each one by one in their family bathtub. Yates had constant thoughts and delusions of the devil being inside her head, controlling her entire life. The thoughts of the devil in her head were telling her that the only way to save her children from her insanity was to kill them. With the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity, Yates was sent to a psychiatric hospital where she continues to receive the help necessary to decrease her symptoms instead of being sent to a lifetime in prison, where no help is distributed to the inmates.
Not guilty by reason of insanity is used by thousands of lawyers all around the country. The time old question remains, is this a reasonable and logical defense to use for perpetrators who are, in fact, mentally ill? The defense, when coming to a verdict, allows those, who truly need help, get the proper treatment needed. Without this defense prisons would be flooded with hundreds of criminals who are mentally ill and maybe cannot ask for the help required for them. As said by Cornell Legal Information Institute, criminals with the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity are set to the standard of the “McNaughton Rule” which applies the accusation that the perpetrator “…does not know right from wrong.” The criminals who are involved in crimes of passion know the difference between right and wrong, but are so overcome with their emotion that it leads them to commit a crime such as homicide, kidnapping, robbery, or whatever the case may be. These perpetrators are the ones who should not be found guilty by reason of insanity because there is no actual illness present that cannot be stopped. Prisons should be filled with those who choose to commit their legal acts rather than those who are controlled completely by the mental illnesses that seem to define them. Many defendants who have a history of mental illness cannot control, are not aware of, or are too compelled by their mental illness to do anything about it. Not guilty by reason of insanity is a way for the mentally ill to be set apart from the criminally evil or criminally insane, and receive the help they need while paying for the crime they have committed.
The term “mentally insane” usually sparks a common thought in everyone’s mind. We usually refer to the criminally insane as those who commit heinous crimes with the intent of hurting someone, but when referring to the mentally insane we think about illnesses that cause the criminal to have trouble understanding why what they did was wrong. These criminals could have an abundant amount of different illnesses, but each illness tells a different story for each criminal. The biggest question in our minds is why? Why do those who are convicted of crimes and are mentally insane commit the crimes that they do? There is a simple, yet extremely complex reason for this: mental illness has the ability to control a person’s entire mind, body, and life. The mental illnesses that many of the criminally insane suffer from causes various neurological effects within the person. Whether it is cognitive dysfunction, delusions, hallucinations, or feelings of being possessed by the devil, many of these convicted murders have a story of being compelled to commit the crime. It seems so simple to grasp the concept of mental illness when relating it to the criminally insane, but there is a much bigger idea that we do not quite fully understand.
Many victims of mental illness are drawn to darkness and evil due to the “voices” they hear in their heads. Many mental illness’ cause people to hallucinate or have delusions of things and voices that are not really there. This is most common in schizophrenic patients. As proven by Michael Brook, Robert E. Hanlon, and John Stratton, in “Murder and Psychosis: Neuropsychological Profiles of Homicide Offenders With Schizophrenia,” patients with this illness are “…2.5-7%” more “…at risk for violence perpetration…” This is due to the negative neurocognitive effects that this illness has including problems with attention, working memory, executive functions, and verbal memory. The study conducted by Brook, Hanlon, and Stratton supported the hypothesis that those with this disorder are more susceptible to falling to violent actions when they feel threatened, endangered, or as if it is the only way to fix the problem at hand. This could be whether a major problem in their mind, or a minor predicament that simply manifests and leads them to snap. Many of us cannot understand what it is like to have a constant voice in our minds telling us that something we were taught was wrong, is right in that moment. Having someone constantly repeating to you that murdering a loved one was the only way to save them, and save yourself, much like Andrea Yates had dealt with, is not a concept that is in the slightest bit considered by an ordinary person, but to some of the mentally insane, this concept is just an everyday occurrence.
The phrase “not guilty by reason of insanity” was put into place because of this concept that many people cannot understand because their mental health is not on the same wavelength as these criminals. Mental illness does not excuse the behavior of these criminals, but it gives us a closer look into the minds of the murderer. In the justice system we try so hard to figure out why the crime was committed. Many cases are not a case of who did it, but they are cases of why did this person do it? Often times, the justice system is presented with people who commit crimes with the intent of getting something out of it. A branch of criminals could be those who we see as mentally insane due to their pleasure of committing the crime, but that would not fall under the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. Many cases involve murders resulting from revenge, crimes of passion, or someone who likes the thrill of committing the crime. In patients of schizophrenia and many other mental illnesses and disorders, they feel that the crime at hand must be committed in order to save themselves or someone close to them. Often times, they do not understand why they have done what they did, but they know that in their mind it was a necessary task.
Andrea Yates was on of these patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, who felt that the murder of her five children was necessary to save them from the devil. She was not only a patient with schizophrenia, but also multiple other mental illnesses. Through suffering with all the mental illnesses that she was diagnosed with, she felt that the devil would talk to her and tell her what a horrible job as a parents she was doing. This led to her to believe that her parenting would result in her children having issues when they get older, or it would result in childhood trauma, even though she was not a horrible, or abusive parent to her children. With her diagnosis of schizophrenia came the constant regret of having children, constant worry she was emotionally hurting them, and the constant fear that something bad would happen. Her reasoning, as Roche described in “Andrea Yates: More to the Story,” from “The New York Times,” was “[Her] children weren’t righteous. They stumbled because [she] was evil. The way [she] was raising them they could never be saved…” The reasoning behind the horrible crime committed was because her mental illness led her to believe that the only way to save them from “[perishing] in the fires of hell” was to kill them. In reality, we know that this idea is not plausible and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but to Andrea, this was the only escape from the voices and the only way to protect her children from herself and the devil.
The biggest dilemma in these cases is trying to decipher who is mentally insane and who is the criminally insane. The intent to commit the crime at hand versus the compulsion that is forced upon the individual who does not know right from wrong is an issue that continues on today. Mental illness causes people to do many things, because of it affecting and deteriorating their cognitive abilities. Andrea Yates was one person that was affected by many mental illnesses that led her to commit a crime that we cannot even wrap our heads around doing. As diagnoses continued to pile up, she continued to get treatment, but never fully recovered. This is just one person in the mix of thousands of people convicted of homicide and put in prison. Many people are given the help required to make them better, but even more convicted criminals are put into prisons and neglected of the help that they need. Prisons could be much less populated if mental illness was found in many of the cases that have been overlooked. Many people are found guilty for their crime, but how many of those people are guilty by reason of insanity?
In the case of Andrea Yates, the crimes that she has been convicted of have been determined to have been caused by her diagnoses of mental illness, which includes the diagnoses of schizophrenia. Many people tend to ask the question, is this really the case? Schizophrenia has been diagnosed in hundreds of thousands of people across the country, but the amount of people who commit crimes with this disease is much less than people would think. Schizophrenia leads those who suffer from it to have trouble easily processing the relation between thought, emotion, and behavior which can lead to inappropriate actions and feelings, and can lead to a complete withdrawal from reality and the person’s entire life and family. It’s main distraction from life is caused by the excessive hallucinations and delusions that take over the sufferer’s cognitive functioning. It may also cause them to do things they usually wouldn’t if they feel they are being threatened or endangered. However, the chance of someone turning to a violet crime or action is much more prevalent in people who abuse drugs while they are suffering from this mental disorder.
The risk of attack by someone with schizophrenia is much less in those who do not abuse drugs. When a person with this mental disorder uses drugs, the drugs stimulate the brain and heighten the effects that the schizophrenia has on a person. The study described by Rebecca Syed, in “Are You Really at Risk of Attack by Someone With Schizophrenia,” has shown that those who do not abuse drugs alongside the disease are only “…1.2 times more likely…” to commit a violet act than those who do not have a mental disorder. Although the chances for someone who does misuse drugs alongside having this disease doesn’t show a major increase in risk of violent crimes, “…the studies don’t tell us how much violent offending is actually caused by the mental disorder itself.” Those who are convicted of being not guilty by reason of insanity have been questioned to actually have been insane. This concept seems insane in itself. It is extremely difficult to determine the real impacts of mental illness on a crime. There is always room for dramatic emphasis on the effects that a criminal could try to use, just to help get a shorter sentence for the conviction they are facing. How can you tell who is actually mentally ill, and who is trying to emphasize an illness for their own benefit? Or even if the person is mentally ill, how can a jury decide if it was the mental illness that caused a person to commit a crime?
In the case of Andrea Yates, she was originally found to be guilty of the murder of her five children. Later on, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity. This case had many controversial conversations about whether she committed the crime due to this mental illness, or due to other factors. As explained by Gary Kesling, in “Andre Yates: Ask the Expert,” there could be explanations that “may come from clusters of factors, such as family/social and psychiatric history, perpetrator characteristics such prior family history of conflict and an ongoing history of contact with social services and health and mental health providers.” This raised many questions about whether Yates actually believed the devil was telling her to murder her five children, causing her to think that this would be the only way to save them from herself. There is no way to tell if Yates truly thought she was saving her children, or if she is using this mental illness as an escape. Not only is this a major debate in the Andre Yates case, but it becomes a problem in thousands of cases each year in the justice system.
Homicide involving mental health raises many questions and involves complex maneuvers when determining the actual cause or reason for the homicide. Schizophrenia is just one of the many mental illnesses that continue to be questioned when brought into play in the court room. Mental health must be thoroughly researched and diagnosed to fully determine if someone is actually as mentally ill as they claim to be. When the perpetrator pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, it turns the case around and brings up many issues within the jury. This continues to be a major debate, as some people believe the mentally ill still deserve jail time, but others believe they need the help required to get them better instead.
Andrea Yates was convicted of murder until the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity was put into question after she was already in prison for multiple years. The illnesses she suffered from do not excuse the crime committed that led to the loss of five innocent young lives, but Yates is now receiving the treatment needed in order to better herself and ensure that another crime is not committed. Mental illness in the justice system is a serious and complex subject because it requires sufficient evidence to prove that someone is actually suffering, or suffered from a mental illness at the time of the crime. To this day, not guilty by reason of insanity is something that is not taken lightly in the justice system, but is always under a fine microscope to ensure that criminally insane get put away, and the mentally insane receive help.
“Andrea Yates Fast Facts.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 June 2018, http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/25/us/andrea-yates-fast-facts/index.html
Cornell Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/background/insane/insanity.html
Diamond, S.A., (2008, May 2). Sympathy for the Devil. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evil-deeds/200805/sympathy-the-devil
Kesling, G. (2006, September 1). Ask the expert: The Case of Andrea Yates. Retrieved from http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=5&sid=fe9d653a-63d8-4d3b-b270-20f26b85b43b%40sessionmgr102
Poyatos-Leon, R.; Garcia-Hermoso, A.; Sanabria-Martinez, G.; Alvarez-Bueno, C; Cavero-Redondo, I.; Martinez-Vizcaino, V. (2017, June 6). Effects of exercise‐based interventions on postpartum depression: A meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/birt.12294
Roche, T. (2002, March 18). Andrea Yates: More To The Story. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,218445,00.html
“Schizophrenia.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/schizophrenia/index.shtml.
Stratton, J.; Brook, M.; Hanlon, R.E. (2016, February 10). Murder and Psychosis: Neuropsychological Profiles of Homicide Offenders with Schizophrenia. Retrieved from http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=10&sid=b13e729e-d665-41b4-9734-94c9ecff5647%40pdc-v-sessmgr03
Syed, R. (2013, June 19). Are You Really at Risk of Attack by Someone With Schizophrenia. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/are-you-really-at-risk-of-attack-by-someone-with-schizophrenia-14656