The Federal Insanity Defense Act of 1984

(by Andrew Garofolo)

Background

In 1882, John Hinckley attempted an assassination on Ronald Reagan.

It was revealed that Hinckley was in fact obsessed with actress Jodi Foster and tried to assassinate the president to impress her. The verdict of the trial was “not guilty by reason of insanity.” (Linder, 2002). He has been held under institutional psychiatric care ever since.

This outraged many Americans. Public pressure resulted in Congress and most states making reforms of laws governing the use of the insanity defense (Linder, 2002). Congress passed revisions to the insanity defense through the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which reads:

“It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any federal statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense.” (Linder, 2002)

The Federal Insanity Defense Act of 1984

The basic premise of it was:

1. The Act significantly modified the standard for insanity previously applied in the federal courts.

2. It shifted the burden of proof on the defendant to establish the insanity defense by clear and convincing evidence.

3. It eliminated the defense of diminished capacity.

4. It limited the scope of expert testimony on ultimate legal issues.

5. Provided for federal commitment of persons who become insane after having been found guilty or while serving a federal prison sentence.

6. Created a special verdict of “not guilty only by reason of insanity,” which triggers a commitment proceeding (Criminal Resource Manual).

References

Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984. Criminal Resource Manual 634. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/usao/eousa/foia_reading_room/usam/title9/crm00634.htm

Linder, Douglas. (2002). Famous American Trials. The John Hinckley Trial. Retrieved from http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/hinckley/hinckleytrial.html

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