Safiyat Naseem

The author is a law student at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

The concept of “responsibility” arises with most of the cases involving human conduct and presence of guilt, knowledge of the act and its consequences. A person thoroughly oblivious about its surrounding, or unaware of the distinction between right and wrong, is not the one to punish. Punishing someone who is not responsible for the crime is a violation of basic human rights and fundamental rights under constitution of India.  It also brings the due process of law, if that person is not in a position to defend himself in the court of law, evoking the principle of natural justice.

The plea of insanity as a defense in criminal cases has a long and fascinating history. The introduction of “McNaughton’s rules” in 1843 was a turning point in the history of the insanity defense. In 1843, a wood-turner from Glasgow, Daniel McNaughten shot and killed Edward Drummond mistaking him for Sir Robert Peel. McNaughten believed that he was persecuted by the Tories, and evidence was brought to show that he had been totally deluded on this subject for some time. His state of mind was evident from the beginning when he had to be enticed, and finally tricked, into pleading “not guilty.” After hearing seven medical witnesses testify that he was completely insane, the judge stopped the trial, the jury brought in the special verdict without summing up and without retiring, and Mc Naughten was forcibly committed to the Bethlem Hospital. Five propositions were drawn thereafter, which were called McNaughten’s Rules.

This case became a defining moment even in the history of Indian Law relating insanity defense, section 84 IPC is exclusively based on McNaughten Rules. It deals with- “Act of a person of unsound mind”—Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who, at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to law. Section 84 IPC, clearly embodies a fundamental maxim of criminal jurisprudence that is,

(a) “Actus nonfacit reum nisi mens sit rea” -an act does not constitute guilt unless done with a guilty intention;

(b) “Furiosi nulla voluntas est” -a person with mental illness has no free will.

Hence, Section 84 IPC affixes no culpability on persons with mental illness because they can have no rational thinking or the necessary guilty intent.


Critics argue that some defendants misuse it, effectively faking insanity to win acquittals or less severe convictions. And often the trials involving an insanity defense get the most attention because they involve “crimes that are bizarre within themselves,” said Baltimore defense attorney Cristina Gutierrez, who has defended a dozen such cases in as many years. Some high profile cases of Insanity defense are listed below, where in some cases, the juries agreed, but more often than not, the criminals were found sane enough to know that what they were doing was wrong.


In August 2007, John Evander Couey, the man convicted of kidnapping, raping and burying nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford alive, was declared sane enough to be executed. Couey’s attorneys argued that he suffered lifelong mental abuse and had an IQ below 70. The judge in the case ruled that the most credible exam rated Couey’s IQ at 78, above the level considered mentally disabled in Florida. He, however, bypassed being strapped to a gurney. Instead, he died in a prison hospital on August 30, 2009, from natural causes as a result of having cancer. 


At one time Andrea Yates was a high school valedictorian, champion swimmer, and college-educated registered nurse. Then in 2002, she was convicted of capital murder for killing three of her five children. She systematically drowned her five children in the bathtub after her husband left for work. In 2005, her conviction was overturned, and a new trial was ordered. Yates was re-tried in 2006 and found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. 

Yates had a long medical history of suffering from severe postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. After giving birth to each of her children, she displayed extreme psychotic behavior that included hallucinations, attempted suicides, self-mutilation, and an irresistible impulse to hurt the children. She had been in and out of mental institutions over the years.

Just weeks before the murders, Yates was released from a mental hospital because her insurance stopped paying. She was told by her psychiatrist to think happy thoughts. Despite warnings from her doctors, she was left alone with the children. This was one of the cases when the plea, innocent by reason of insanity, was justified.


Mary Winkler, 32, was charged with the first-degree murder on March 22, 2006, for the shotgun shooting death of her husband, Matthew Winkler. Winkler had been serving as the pulpit minister at the Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer, Tennessee. He was found dead in his home by church members after he failed to show up for an evening church service that he was scheduled to lead. He had been shot in the back

A jury convicted Mary Winkler of voluntary manslaughter after hearing testimony that she was physically and mentally abused by her husband. She was sentenced to 210 days and was free after 67 days, most of which was served in a mental facility.


Anthony Sowell is a registered sex offender who is accused of killing 11 women and keeping their decomposing bodies in his home. In Dec. 2009, Sowell pleaded not guilty to all 85 counts in his indictment. The charges against Sowell, 56, ranged from murder, rape, assault and corpse abuse. However, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Richard Bombik said there was no evidence that Sowell is insane.


Lisa Montgomery tried to use mental illness when she was being tried for strangling eight-month pregnant Bobbie Jo Stinnett to death and cutting the unborn child from her womb.

Her lawyers said she was suffering from pseudocyesis, which causes a woman to falsely believe she is pregnant and exhibit outward signs of pregnancy. But the jury didn’t buy it after seeing evidence of the methodical plan Montgomery used to lure Stinnett into her deadly trap. Montgomery was found guilty and sentenced to death.


Ted Bundy was attractive, smart, and had a future in politics. He was also one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history. When he was being tried for the murder of one of his many victims, Kimberly Leach, he and his attorneys decided on an insanity plea, the only defense possible with the amount of evidence the state had against him. It did not work, and on January 24, 1989, Bundy was electrocuted by the state of Florida.


In 2010, 24 year old “Mark Berker” was found guilty of killing his high school Football coach Ed Thomas, and Mr. Berker being mentally ill and off his medications considered him as Satan. Apparently that didn’t bother the lower court justice system. Before carrying out the verdict, the jury asked the Judges- what if they found Mr. Berker “Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity” (NGBRI). Getting silent answer from the judge, the jury took the safe approach of “Guilty as Charged”.

Not guilty by reason of Insanity is an inadequate remedy to violence by individuals with mental illness. It is only attempted in 1% of murder charges and is rarely successful.

Andrea Yates and John Hinckley were two famous exceptions. Andrea Yates, 37, was found NGBRI in Texas, after postpartum psychosis caused her to drown her five children in a bathtub. Twenty six- year-old Colorado resident John Hinckley was found NGBRI in Washington after he shot Ronald Reagan in a schizophrenia-fueled attempt to secure a date with Jodie Foster. As a result of their successful pleas, both were sent to locked psychiatric hospitals and put on medications to help them regain their sanity. They’re getting treatment and the public is being kept safe. At least for now. But, theoretically, when their sanity is restored, Mr. Hinckley and Ms. Yates can both be released, to go off medications and start drowning kids or shooting presidents again. As a practical matter, few judges are willing to risk that on their watch, so even when sanity is restored—as it allegedly has been in the case of both Mr. Hinckley and Ms. Yates—NGBRI acquitees are routinely kept committed. Ms. Yates has been in a locked hospital eight years and Mr. Hinckley, 29 years. But what kind of society keeps sane individuals involuntarily-committed?

To protect against the possibility of NGBRI acquitees going free, some states either eliminated not guilty by reason of insanity or replaced it with “guilty because of mental illness.” Individuals found guilty because of mental illness go to a hospital until their sanity is restored and then to jail to finish out their sentence. This forces individuals who had no culpability for their actions to go to jail at the exact time it’s not needed—when they’ve regained their sanity. For these individuals being mentally ill is the same as being guilty: either way, they go to jail. Sadly, our prisons and jails have become our de facto mental institutions.

If the cause of the crime was lack of treatment for mental illness, then the solution is to reform laws so we can sentence these individuals to mandatory long-term mental illness treatment—including medications—so they never become violent again. The sentence to treatment could be as long, or longer, than the maximum sentence that would be imposed had the person been found guilty. If this change were adopted, incarcerating the mentally ill would rarely be needed. Their treatment could take place in an inpatient setting on a locked ward if that is what is needed to keep society safe. But, if the sentenced patient progresses—and the crime not too serious—their treatment could be continued on an outpatient basis. Over time, it would most likely be both. Under this form of not guilty by reason of insanity, the sentenced patient could be moved from inpatient care to outpatient care when doing well and instantly back to inpatient with no further court hearings needed if they started to deteriorate. In either case, the individual would be closely monitored by a case manager to see that they stay on their violence preventing medications. That’s the solution that keeps the public safe, avoids wasting resources, and eliminates the dilemma of incarcerating those we should be treating.

As an alternative to NGRI, some states have added a third possible verdict to the usual trio of guilty, not guilty, and NGRI—the verdict of “guilty but mentally ill” (GBMI). In theory, this recognizes when a defendant’s mental illness played an important role in a crime without entirely causing it. The state incarcerates the defendant for the crime, but also treats him or her for the mental illness. Unfortunately, states with GBMI verdicts have sometimes neglected to provide for treatment; therefore many of these defendants are jailed without treatment, exactly as if they had been found guilty. Another dilemma with the GBMI verdict may be an “easy out” for jurors. If a jury finds the defendant guilty, they may not spend time worrying about whether he or she may be sane; because they find the defendant mentally ill, they may not address the fact that the defendant should actually be found NGRI. Hence, the insanity defense “problem” will not yield to easy solutions.


Insanity pleas had a success rate of about 17% in Indian High Courts in the past decade. Even though the success rate for wrongful use of Insanity Defense remains low not only in Indian Courts but also worldwide, the need to put more straightforward laws and tests for this can’t be ignored. It is not easy to get away with Insanity Defense, even in fact not many criminals use this defense, but still the unsolved issues of this cannot remain unanswered. There’s an issue of distinguishing the violent criminals and insane criminals, the criminals committing wrong under the influence of alcohol and drugs shouldn’t be confused with the individuals of insane mind. The states still need to look forward for some strict laws in order to control and use this defense in its right form

1. The Insanity Defence: A Closer Look, John P Martin, The Washington Post, 1998
2. Infamous Cases of Defendants Pleading Insanity, Charles Montaldo, Thoughtco, 2018
3. The Trouble With the Insanity Defense, D.J Jaffe, The Wall Street Journal, 2010
4. Insanity Defense and the Issues with it, writinglaw
5. Insanity Defense, Encyclopaedia
6. How does India Decide Insanity Pleas? A Review of High Court Judgments in the Past Decade, Parthasarathy Ramamurthy, Vijay Chathoth, and Pradeep Thilakan, Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2019

image credit: Pixabay

This is a BizHeadz curated property. Get your articles published here. Write to us now to

To read more articles, visit Articles

To publish your article, visit Publish

Recent Articles

Blog Image
31 October 2020
Indepth Jr is making its mark in the growing ed-tech space.

Jazah Co-Founder, Indepth Jr Know more about how to use Indepth Jr from its Co-Founder Indepth Jr is an online…

Blog Image
Flow of Indian students is an alert!

Roshni Franciss T Student Months back one of my seniors at the college who already completed his post-graduation in 2018…

Blog Image
30 October 2020
In the middle of a pandemic, a request to skill yourself.

Jisham Ashraf Founder, Indepth Jr Indepth Jr is an online platform to skill kids in the Grade 5-12 by providing…

Blog Image
21 June 2020
Redefining Journalism: A talk with Asiaville’s Athira Madhav

– – Athira Madhav is a multimedia producer working at Asiaville Malayalam. Her innate ability to present complex news in…

Blog Image
10 June 2020
Interview with the man who made ‘boat out of a saree’

– K&K Techs is a YouTube channel run by Alappuzha based vlogger Saiju Thomas. The channel has around 1.3 lakh…

Blog Image
8 June 2020
UPSC CSE 2020: How to become an IAS officer

– Civil Service Examination is conducted by the Union Public Service Commission. To know more about exam visit UPSC. How…