What is the definition of insanity?

Proving Insanity

To prove insanity, the defense must establish that a mental illness prevented the defendant from understanding that his actions were wrong at the time of the offense.

And they must do it with "clear and convincing evidence." In federal courts, jurors are instructed that the term refers to evidence that makes it "highly probable" that the person was insane when she committed the crime. Jurors are permitted to consider the defendant's mental condition before and after the crime, as well as witness testimony and the opinions of the psychiatric experts, which they may accept or reject as they see fit, in reaching this decision [source: Legal Information Institute].

Regardless of the specific terms used to describe the evidence, the defense must establish a clear connection between the defendant's mental illness and the actual commission of a crime. Just because a person suffers from episodes of psychosis, doesn't mean that the psychosis caused her to rob a liquor store. Maybe she was just thirsty [source: Singer-Vine].

The insanity question often comes down to expert opinion. Mental health professionals typically interview a defendant and people who know her -- family, friends, co-workers -- to determine insanity. They also review other information like the arrest warrant and charging documents, the person's medical and criminal history and any statements made on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. In addition, experts rely on specialized tests designed to catch defendants embellishing their impairments by claiming that they experience exaggerated symptoms or those that are not typically associated with a specific disorder [source: Singer-Vine].

The results of these reviews often weigh against the accused. A 2004 study of more than 5,000 sanity evaluations conducted by forensic evaluators in Virginia showed that defendants were deemed insane in just 15 percent of the cases [sources: Warren, Singer-Vine].

If all the legal jargon, rules and statistics haven't driven you to the brink of insanity, read on for more information about mental health and criminal justice.

Author's Note: What is the definition of insanity?

"Hoosiers" is the greatest sports movie of all time. The "based on a true" story follows tiny Hickory High School, which with the help of a tough-as-nails new coach (Gene Hackman), a charmingly drunk "assistant" (Dennis Hopper) and a silent but deadly shooter (some guy who could really shoot the rock), beats the odds to win the Indiana state basketball championship. The climax, of course, comes in the big game. Taking on powerhouse South Bend High, the game goes down to the wire as Hickory hero Jimmy Chitwood drills a jumper from the top of the key to seal the victory, the crowd goes nuts, and the camera fades to the Indiana cornfields and the sound of a basketball being dribbled in the distance. I have seen this film roughly 7,361 times. Every time, I am on the edge of my seat hoping and praying that Chitwood's shot will go in. The good news is that this probably does not make me insane in a court of law.

Related Articles


  • Covey, Russell. "Temporary Insanity: The Strange Life and Times of the Perfect Defense." Boston University Law Review. (March 3, 2013) http://www.bu.edu/law/central/jd/organizations/journals/bulr/documents/COVEY.pdf
  • FindLaw. "The Model Penal Code Test for Legal Insanity." (March 3, 2013) http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/the-model-penal-code-test-for-legal-insanity.html
  • Howes, Ryan. "The Definition of Insanity is..." Psychology Today. July 27, 2009. (March 3, 2013) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-therapy/200907/the-definition-insanity-is
  • Kleinfield, N.R., "Modern Ways Open India's Doors to Diabetes." The New York Times. Sept. 13, 2006. (March 7, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/13/world/asia/13diabetes.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
  • Lally, Stephen. "Drawing a Clear Line Between Criminals and the Criminally Insane." The Washington Post. Nov. 23, 1997. (March 3, 2013) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/longterm/aron/expert1123.htm
  • Legal Information Institute. "18 USC § 17 - Insanity defense." (March 3, 2013) http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/17
  • Madsen, Candice. "Law professors explain why insanity defense is difficult to prove." KSL.com. Nov. 28, 2010. (March 3, 2013) http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=13443510
  • Mayo Clinic. "Depression (major depression)." (March 3, 2013) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression/DS00175/DSECTION=symptoms
  • Moisse, Katie. "Andrea Yates Could be Released from Psychiatric Hospital to Attend Church." ABC News. March 28, 2012. (March 3, 2013) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/andrea-yates-released-psychiatric-hospital-attend-church/story?id=16021269
  • Muskal, Michael. "John Hinckley, who shot Reagan, seeks more time outside hospital." The Los Angeles Times. Nov. 30, 2011. (March 3, 2013) http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/nationnow/2011/11/john-hinckley-who-shot-reagan-seeks-longer-visits-away-from-hospital.html
  • PBS. "From Daniel M'Naughton to John Hinckley: A Brief History of the Insanity Defense." (March 3, 2013) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/crime/trial/history.html
  • Pogash, Carol. "Myth of the Twinkie Defense." San Francisco Chronicle. Nov. 23, 2003. (March 3, 2013) http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Myth-of-the-Twinkie-defense-The-verdict-in-2511152.php
  • Singer-Vine, Jeremy. "The Insanity Defense." Slate. Jan. 14, 2011. (March 3, 2013) http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2011/01/the_insanity_defense.html
  • US Legal. "Burden of Proof." (March 3, 2013) http://criminallaw.uslegal.com/defense-of-insanity/current-application-of-the-insanity-defense/burden-of-proof/
  • U.S. Department of Justice. "Insanity-Present Statutory Test." (March 3, 2013) http://www.justice.gov/usao/eousa/foia_reading_room/usam/title9/crm00637.htm
  • Warren, Janet. "Opinion formation in evaluating sanity at the time of the offense: an examination of 5175 pre-trial evaluations." Behavioral Sciences and the Law. Dec. 14, 2003. (March 3, 2013) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bsl.559/abstract

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