The insanity defense sounds reasonable enough in theory and reflects our intuitive feeling that legal guilt requires...



The insanity defense sounds reasonable enough in theory and reflects our intuitive feeling that legal guilt requires responsibility. But UCLA faculty members Winslade (law/psychiatry) and Ross (psychiatry) contend that its application in practice all too often results in ""egregious and highly visible offenses to good sense."" Most readers will find it difficult to dispute that conclusion in the cases studied here, selected to show ""the law and psychiatry at their worst."" The two, Winslade and Ross argue, are fundamentally incompatible philosophies: law assumes we have chosen freely to perform our acts, while psychiatry assumes that behavior is caused and shaped by prior events or physiological states. No wonder that lay jurors' attempts to mesh psychiatry and legal standards often seem ""an exercise in public fraud.' Winslade and Ross emphasize that the insanity plea works best, from a defense viewpoint, with a personally appealing defendant who has no prior history of mental illness (the he-must-be-crazy-because-there's-no-other-explanation defense), as in the case of San Francisco supervisor Dan White, who shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and fellow-supervisor Harvey Milk and drew a very light sentence for voluntary manslaughter. In other cases, like that of the loser who killed ballplayer Lyman Bostock in 1978, mental health experts provide a screen behind which jurors can hide to rationalize an otherwise unacceptable decision in favor of a sympathetic defendant. (Bostock's killer was freed after only seven months of post-trial institutionalization.) But the defendant must be sympathetic--one great irony of the insanity defense is that there seems to be a horror barrier, beyond which juries are unwilling to buy the argument even from the totally crazy (cf. Tex Watson of the Manson family, whom--no matter how crazy--jurors new her wanted to see on the street again). For Winslade and Ross, the verdict in the Hinckley case resulted not so much from the jurors' complete confusion (though that was an element: atone point the jury, in all sincerity, asked the judge if poetry was fact or fiction) as from the virtually-impossible burden of proof in federal criminal trials, where the prosecution must prove the defendant sane as well as guilty. That brings us to the bottom line of Winslade and Ross' argument: the insanity defense should be abolished ""to keep lawyers and juries from replacing responsibility for actions with explanations of behavior."" Instead, they advocate dividing trials into guilt and penalty phases, eliminating most psychiatric testimony (except on treatment possibilities), permitting a ""guilty but mentally ill"" plea, and sentencing crazy but guilty defendants to flexible terres including both treatment and imprisonment. Familiar arguments, but persuasively presented in an up-to-date, accessible form for general readers.

Pub Date: April 1, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Scribners

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1983