James Leroy Wilson's blog

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Guilty but Insane

I'm troubled by the Andrea Yates verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity." I'm not going to venture into Thomas Szasz territory and the question of whether mental illness is a myth; if anything, I tend to agree with this statement from a NAMI press release: "The criminal justice system usually is ill-suited to address issues involving mental illness as it tries to impose legal logic on biological irrationality."

My angle is this: if Yates in fact committed the murders, she should have been found "guilty." This would establish that the state, as the official protector of our lives and liberties, has the right to incarcerate her. And then, if the jury rules "but insane," that would help determine the terms and location of her incarceration.

How is this different from "not guilty by reason of insanity?" Because if someone is "not guilty" of a crime, the state has no right to take her away. Period. No matter how insane she seems to be. The state is essentially ruling that the state can take a person away not because of the guilt, but because of the insanity. The evil is in the involuntary commitment of individuals to mental hospitals. If the state is to judge someone's mental competence, that should be considered only if that person is accused of a crime and should be able to act only if the person is found guilty of the crime. Otherwise, the state should leave people alone.


  1. Killing another human being is "homicide", but not all "homicide" is "murder". To qualify as murder, the killer must have both done the act of killing (actus rea) and had the required state of mind (mens rea).

    A sleepwalker, for example, would not have had the requisite state of mind to be convicted of murder in the case of a killing while sleepwalking. An "insane" person would not have had the requisite state of mind and would, therefore, not be a murderer. She would be "not guilty" of murder even though she had killed someone.

    In our society, murderers are treated differently from killers while insane. Both are put away for the protection of society, but the killer while insane can recover and re-enter society, in principle, at some point. She is not considered morally unsound, only mentally ill.

    Similarly, we acknowledge degrees of culpability for murderers. A crime of passion is treated less harshly than cold blooded murder, for example.

  2. I prefer "responsible but insane", or "responsible but mentally disordered". That conveys acknowledgement of the actus rea without admitting mens rea.