Insanity Defense Reform Act

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The Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on October 12, 1984[1], amending the United States federal laws governing defendants with mental diseases or defects to make it significantly more difficult to obtain a verdict of not guilty only by reason of insanity. It removed the volitional component, that a defendant lacked capacity to conform their conduct to the law, from the ALI test.[2]:615 Defendants were exculpated only if "at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, ... as the result of a severe mental disease or defect, [they were] unable to appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of [their] acts."[2]:634 The law passed in the wake of public outrage after John Hinckley, Jr.'s acquittal by reason of insanity for his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.[2]:634–635

Prior to the enactment of the law, the federal standard for "insanity" was that the government had to prove a defendant's sanity beyond a reasonable doubt (assuming the insanity defense was raised). Following the Act's enactment, the defendant has the burden of proving insanity by "clear and convincing evidence."[3] Furthermore, expert witnesses for either side are prohibited from testifying directly as to whether the defendant was legally sane or not,[3] but can only testify as to their mental health and capacities, with the question of sanity itself to be decided by the finder-of-fact at trial.[citation needed] The Act was held to be constitutional (and the change in standards and burdens of proof are discussed) in United States v. Freeman.[3]

It was criticized by psychologist Lawrence Z. Freedman for being ineffective: "If the attacker is rational mentally, stable emotionally, and fanatic politically, he will not be deterred. Nor will an irrational, affectively disturbed individual be deterred."[needs context][4]


  1. ^ United States Department of Justice, Criminal Resource Manual, Retrieved May 7, 2018
  2. ^ a b c Criminal Law - Cases and Materials, 7th ed. 2012, Wolters Kluwer Law & Business; John Kaplan, Robert Weisberg, Guyora Binder, ISBN 978-1-4548-0698-1, [1]
  3. ^ a b c United States v. Freeman, 804 F. 2d 1574 (11th Cir. 1986).
  4. ^ Lawrence Zelic Freedman (Mar 1983), The Politics of Insanity: Law, Crime, and Human Responsibility, 4, Political Psychology, p. 171178, JSTOR 3791182

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