The notions of innocence and sanity—as well as their converse—have as much a part in law as they do in philosophy, life and literature, but this article in the Deseret News has a good point. How our legal constructs define these concepts say as much about our culture and society as any artistic or didactic media does. Probably more. Lawyers in Utah have seen case after case of high profile NGRI defense pleas with circumstances “where the predominant religious tradition embraces personal revelation,” and crimes have been committed by defendants who subsequently claim lack of mental capacity to understand or be morally culpable for their actions.
But lawyers in Utah know that the NGRI defense has more strength and standards than a simple “God” (or a higher power) “told me to do it.” The M’Naughten test is a well-known set of criteria that stipulates to a person’s cognitive abilities that help determine whether they should be held responsible to their actions. Evolving out of an old mid-19th century case in England, the test has been “embodied in federal law” in a form that “creates an affirmative defense to guilt,” when a defendant lacks the ability to understand “the wrongfulness of his acts.”
But in parsing that concept, what does that mean? The author of the Deseret News article isn’t so sure that the U.S. Justice system isn’t a bit lax on the NGRI defense. For a court of law to demonstrably prove that a defendant that a mental defect is responsible for his actions, not the person himself, the defendant must meet several qualifications laid out by the M’Naughten test. Psychiatric continuity, for example, or the concept that “the disease or defect will be apparent in every aspect of a person’s life,” not just when the defendant committed the crime, is one stipulation that lawyers in Utah would be familiar with.
But even when severe and persistent mental illness like prolonged and continuing or decades-long intermittent psychoses (like hallucinations of hearing voices or seeing visions) are present, it may not be enough. Whether defense lawyers in Utah like Clay Alger would agree with the statement made by the author of the article that “humans’ innate sense of right and wrong is so acute it can survive severe mental illness” depends probably on experience and the body of evidence on a case by case basis.
One thing is for sure, however, is that most people have strong opinions on this issue. And with defendants’ moral culpability and subsequent freedom or incarceration depending on the education and objectivity of a fair and impartial jury, it may be hard to affirmatively say when a defendant is truly “not guilty” by reasons of “insanity” and whether the law provides enough space to determine justice. In Utah, interestingly, a modified approach does allow a “guard against an insanity-based acquittal” that may seem somewhat reckless. Pleas of “guilty but mentally-ill” may allow defendants to get psychiatric help they need within the justice system while still holding them accountable for their actions.