Sanity-Insanity Line Still Vexes Jurors


Jurors in “insanity defense” trials find themselves in the position of weighing a profound an elusive question: Where is the line that divides sanity and insanity? The Los Angeles Times says that even those who have found an answer say it does bring relief from the anxiety of playing God. Years after rendering decisions, jurors still agonize. Jurors say they are overwhelmed by the term “insanity,” a word laden with stereotypes.

Experts say the insanity defense creates stumbling blocks for jurors who are asked to consider the word as a legal term, not a medical condition. Forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz said “responsible” may be a more logical term for the justice system to adopt. “We should just leave the word ‘insanity’ out,” Dietz said. “The fundamental flaw is that its lay meaning is sick, crazy or psychotic. If a juror has that in mind, they can pretty much accept that every murderer is insane.”

As defined by most courts, insanity is the inability to distinguish right from wrong in conjunction with mental illness. The consequences of a verdict are vast: In many cases, it’s the difference between prison and a mental institution. Faced with monstrous crimes, Dietz said, some jurors may be too eager to conclude that the defendant is insane. “There is no action that is, by its very nature, insane,” Dietz said. “There is always an alternate explanation.”


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