In the wake of the recent shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona, The New York Times this week published an interesting discussion about the insanity defense in the United States. The piece features comments from prominent legal scholars and psychiatrists.
There has been much speculation that the lawyers for Jared Loughner, who has been charged in the Tucson shootings, may mount an insanity defense. Since John Hinckley Jr. was acquitted of trying to kill President Reagan, the use of the insanity defense has become very restricted in federal cases. Arizona, along with several other states, no longer allows a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity.
In the three decades since the Hinckley case, brain research and brain scans have made many advances in diagnosing and categorizing mental illness. Yet this seems to have little bearing on how society deals with insanity and culpability in the legal arena.
What has been learned in the decades since the Hinckley case? Should a better medical understanding of mental illness alter our legal definitions of insanity? Or is the insanity defense rooted in principles or traditions that actually don’t have much to do with medicine?