The Durham Rule

(by Andrew Garofolo)

The United States Court of Appeals adopted the Durham Rule for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1954. In the rule, the court stated, “An accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease.” (Court of Appeals, 1954).

The Durham Rule was considered a very significant advancement of the insanity defense in history because it replaced moral considerations with more unbiased scientific determinations as a result of advancements in the field of psychological research (“A Crime Of Insanity, 2012″).

This required that the jury determine whether the defendant was suffering from disease, and whether there was a causal relationship between the disease and the act.

The Durham rule sought to solve some of the problems with the McNaughton Law, especially the psychiatric assessment.  However, some problems came up with the Durham Rule:

  • When determining whether the accused knew the difference between right and wrong or not, they were asked simply yes or no questions.
  • It relied heavily on expert testimony. This posed as a problem, and in the 1972 case of US vs Brawner, it was abandoned (Constanzo, 2004)
  • Many were concerned that the broad medical definition of insanity would let more criminals out without conviction (“A Crime of Insanity, 2012″).
  • Some critics were worried that defendants would begin to use mental illnesses such as alcoholism as excuses for their crimes (“A Crime Of Insanity, 2012″)

Twenty-two states rejected the Durham Rule, which led to the Model Penal Code of the American Law Institute.


Durham vs. United States. (1954). United States Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit. Retrieved from

Costanzo, M. (2004). Psychology Applied to Law.  Belmont, CA:Wadsworth/Thomson Learning

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