The Insanity Defense

October 11, 2019 • Volume 29, Issue 36
Is it protected under the Constitution?
By Christina L. Lyons


The U.S. Supreme Court is looking anew at the insanity defense, a centuries-old legal doctrine, which holds that some mentally ill defendants do not know right from wrong and cannot be held responsible for their crimes. Supporters of the insanity defense say such individuals need psychiatric treatment, not imprisonment. But critics say the insanity defense is often a “get-out-of-jail” card that enables criminals to avoid punishment. The issue at stake in the Supreme Court case is whether a state that abolishes the insanity defense is violating the U.S. Constitution. A Kansas man facing the death penalty in a quadruple homicide says a state law abolishing the insanity defense unconstitutionally prevented him from arguing that his actions were the result of his mental illness. Many legal experts say the Kansas law — and similar ones in three other states — violate legal precedents and moral norms. But other experts and crime victims' groups say the Constitution allows states to establish their own criminal laws.

People line up outside the U.S. Supreme Court (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
People line up outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 7 in hopes of hearing arguments at the start of the court's fall term. The justices that day heard attorneys debate whether a state can abolish the insanity defense. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Mental Health
Jul. 01, 2022  Youth Mental Health
Jul. 31, 2020  COVID-19 and Mental Health
Oct. 11, 2019  The Insanity Defense
Jul. 12, 2019  Suicide Crisis
Mar. 13, 2015  Prisoners and Mental Illness
Dec. 05, 2014  Treating Schizophrenia
Sep. 12, 2014  Teen Suicide
May 10, 2013  Mental Health Policy
Aug. 03, 2012  Treating ADHD
Jun. 01, 2012  Traumatic Brain Injury
Jun. 26, 2009  Treating Depression
Feb. 13, 2004  Youth Suicide
Feb. 06, 2004  Mental Illness Medication Debate
Mar. 29, 2002  Mental Health Insurance
Feb. 08, 2002  Treating Anxiety
Jul. 16, 1999  Childhood Depression
Jun. 18, 1999  Boys' Emotional Needs
Sep. 12, 1997  Mental Health Policy
Aug. 19, 1994  Prozac
Aug. 06, 1993  Mental Illness
Oct. 09, 1992  Depression
Jun. 14, 1991  Teenage Suicide
Jul. 08, 1988  Biology Invades Psychology
Feb. 13, 1987  The Mentally Ill
Aug. 20, 1982  Mental Health Care Reappraisal
Jun. 12, 1981  Youth Suicide
Sep. 21, 1979  Mental Health Care
Sep. 15, 1978  Brain Research
Jul. 05, 1974  Psychomedicine
Aug. 08, 1973  Emotionally Disturbed Children
Dec. 27, 1972  Mental Depression
Mar. 24, 1972  Schizophrenia: Medical Enigma
Apr. 21, 1971  Approaches to Death
Mar. 03, 1971  Encounter Groups
Nov. 25, 1970  Psychological Counseling of Students
Feb. 19, 1969  Future of Psychiatry
Feb. 02, 1966  New Approaches to Mental Illness
Jan. 22, 1964  Insanity as a Defense
Sep. 25, 1963  Anatomy of Suicide
Nov. 20, 1957  Drugs and Mental Health
Apr. 23, 1954  Mental Health Programs
Jul. 09, 1948  Mental Health
Crime and Law Enforcement
Criminal Law Procedure and Due Process
Domestic Issues
Federal Courts
Mental Health
People with Mental Disabilities
Sentencing and Corrections
Supreme Court History and Decisions