The insanity defense has been a controversial legal tactic for centuries. The centuries-old idea that mentally ill criminals should not be held responsible for their actions has infuriated observers of American law. Those who seek a get-tough approach to crime see the insanity defense as legal fakery, one more tactic in a defender's bag of tricks.
Jeffrey Dahmer, John Hinkley, Jr., David Berkowitz, and Jack Ruby, among many others, will forever be linked in the public mind by their courtroom use of the insanity defense as much as by their infamous deeds. In his The Insanity Plea: The Uses and Abuses of the Insanity Defense, Winslade adds the following high-profile criminals to the roster of those who have attempted to use such a defense: Dan White, Prosenjit Poddar, Leonard Smith, Tex Watson, Robert Torsney, and James Grigson.
Winslade gives a good statement of the basis for our inherent distaste for the insanity defense when he writes:
The underlying theory of American law is that an individual is responsible for his actions and that if he violates the law, he should expect to be found guilty and be punished; and that society has the duty to find him guilty and to punish him. The standard for this responsibility is the knowledge of right and wrong and the ability to choose either course. The law asserts that people know--or should know--what is permitted and what is not permitted, and that they are free to choose and that they must accept the legal consequences of their choices.
The fact that the insanity defense has troubled even those who study the law for a living is an indication of its indefensible status. Paul Kamenar, executive legal director of the Washington Legal Foundation had this to say about the insanity defense: "If a person intends to torture or kill another, who cares whether the reason for doing so was to impress a movie actress [as in the case of John Hinkley, Jr.] or to satisfy some depra...