Long after Hinckley Trial, Few Successful Insanity Defenses

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The insanity ruling that sent President Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., to a psychiatric hospital rather than prison was handed down 34 years ago, but its repercussions still affect hundreds, if not thousands, of people who commit a crime and also have mental illness, NPR reports. These consequences and the insanity defense were in the national spotlight again this week, when a federal judge said Hinckley would be released to live with his elderly mother in Williamsburg, Va. The 1982 verdict prompted fierce arguments over use of the insanity defense. In response, Congress and states enacted stricter rules to govern the insanity defense or in some cases abolished it.

Decades later, the chances of winning an insanity defense are punishingly slim, say  lawyers and psychiatrists, especially for crimes like homicide. “There is a misperception that the insanity defense is frequently used and frequently successful,” says Dr Jeffrey Janofsky, president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. Varying state definitions of the insanity defense carry the greatest consequence in states with the death penalty. Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Kansas have no insanity defense and all have capital punishment. Even in these states, a judge can take mental illness into account when sentencing,. A coalition formed by the American Bar Association and American Civil Liberties Union is trying to ban the death penalty for mentally ill defendants in Idaho, part of a national initiative.

 

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