Insanity Defense Reform Act

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The Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 amended 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 his conduct to the law, from the ALI test.[1]:615 Defendants were only 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, [she was] unable to appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of [her] acts."[1]: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.[1]: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."[2] Furthermore, expert witnesses for either side are prohibited from testifying directly as to whether the defendant was legally sane or not,[2] but can only testify as to his 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.[2]

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."[context?][3]


  1. ^ 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]
  2. ^ a b c United States v. Freeman, 804 F. 2d 1574 (11th Cir. 1986).
  3. ^ Lawrence Zelic Freedman (Mar 1983), The Politics of Insanity: Law, Crime, and Human Responsibility, 4 (1), Political Psychology, p. 171178, JSTOR 3791182 

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