Reforming the Insanity Defense: The Need for a Psychological Defect Plea

By Allyson L. Gay
2010, Vol. 2 No. 10 | pg. 2/2 |

The lust-oriented killer can be either organized or disorganized. The disorganized asocial type usually has below average intelligence and is socially and sexually incompetent (Simons, 2001). The organized nonsocial type usually has above-average intelligence and is socially and sexually competent, and typically strategically targets strangers (Simons, 2001). The thrill-oriented killer is motivated by a need for excitement, which he or she finds in killing. He or she needs his or her “victim to be alive and aware of the degradation before being killed” (Simons, 2001). Thrill-oriented killing involves a drawn-out murder because the killer derives most of his pleasure from the process of the murder rather than the actual kill itself (Simons, 2001). Comfort-oriented killers murder to profit economically from the death, usually through inheritance of money, property, etc. (Simons, 2001). Women serial killers often fall into this category (Simons, 2001). Control-oriented killers find gratification in having power over their victims, “especially the thrill of deciding whether a person will live or die, [as well as] how and when” (Simons, 2001). Predatory killers are attracted to the hunt and kill, and view killing as a sport or recreational activity (Simons, 2001). Currently, all of these five subcategories lack sufficient psychosis symptoms to allow them an insanity defense. However, the question then becomes are they really psychologically and mentally competent.

Many serial murderers fit the profile for having an anti-social personality disorder (Simons, 2001). Holmes and DeBurger (1985) contend:

“Affected individuals are often quite intelligent and charming and are free from psychosis and neurosis. They are good at manipulating people for their own ends and prefer to have superficial relationships with others rather than close and intimate friendships. They have almost no capacity to put themselves in the place of their victims and, therefore, have no sympathy for them.” (As cited by Simons, 2001)

Unlike serial killers with psychopathy, those with anti-social personality disorder should not be allowed to plead guilty by reason of insanity. They lack empathy but otherwise understand what they are doing. Unlike serial killers with pscyhopathy they manipulate the system to benefit their own means to an end. Allowing this disorder to fall into the insanity defense would feed into their disorder in that it would allow for the manipulation of the system to benefit their own ends, which would increase the societal biases that insanity pleas are generally a tactic not a defense.

Societal Biases

Societal biases are a major concern in the court system because they can change a verdict depending on the biases of jurors. Cesar Barone was a sociopath who murdered at least five women. Jack Levin testified at his trial stressing to the jury that serial murderers spending life in prison are more cooperative and we can learn more from them than serial murderers on death row. Barone was sentenced to death because the jurors believed he would never be executed due to the fact that then state of Oregon had not executed anyone since 1997. Upon appeal, Barone’s legal team quoted a juror’s exchange with the defense team during the discovery phase. This quote is the perfect example of societal biases affecting the verdict.

“I believe, when you get a personality type such as Ted Bundy’s, there is virtually no chance for rehabilitation. I believe, yes, they should be executed. I don’t believe the American public should have to support them. They serve no constructive good for society. ... There [are] a lot of people who have that [had a terrible childhood, had been abused, and neglected, and mistreated] that don’t go out and do these things” (Levin, 2008).

She is not alone. Many people believe that serial killers have no chance for rehabilitation; therefore they should be executed to save money. However, that is where this juror and most of society, generally speaking, are wrong. The death penalty, especially in the case of serial killers, is detrimental and hurts society more than it helps. A life without parole sentence is just as effective, if not more effective, as a deterrent as the death penalty, is economically more efficient and, as Levin stated, serial killers are more cooperative when they are incarcerated for life.

There is more than just a societal bias against serial killers. There is a societal bias and disapproval of the insanity defense. In addition to juror attitudes and misconceptions about the legal aspects of the defense itself, jurors’ implicit theories about what constitutes insanity have been found to be strongly associated with verdicts (Krauss & Lieberman, 2009). Thus, verdicts may depend in large part on jurors’ a priori attitudes and conceptions rather than on the legal standard as applied to the evidence (Krauss & Lieberman, 2009). Many studies have shown that the American public overestimates both the use and success of the insanity defense in the courtroom. This overestimation correlates directly to the thoughts of jurors, and can create a serious bias when the insanity defense is properly pled before them. While it is unclear how much jurors’ implicit theories affect their verdicts, several studies have implicated that jurors may categorize defendants according to prototypes that match their implicit theories of insanity defendants (Krauss & Lieberman, 2009).

With history as an example, public opinion affects laws and customs. The perfect example of a negative public opinion impact is the Reagan assassination attempt. John W. Hinckley, Jr., the man who tried to assassinate Reagan, was acquitted based on the insanity defense and there was a public uproar. As a result of this public outrage, there was major court reform, including the Insanity Defense Reform Act (IDRA), which made it even more difficult to argue the insanity defense.

Furthermore, the statistics brought about by Silver and colleagues (1994) prove that there is a societal bias against the insanity plea. For the .9 percent of felony indictments that result in insanity plea, the public had a 41 times greater estimate at 37 percent (37 per 100 indictments). The public estimated that 44 percent of insanity pleas are successful and result in acquittal when actually only 26 percent result in acquittal. The public estimated that only 50 percent of acquittals result in hospitalization. The actual rate of hospitalization from acquittal is 85 percent. Lastly, the public estimated 26 percent of acquittals lead to freedom. The actual rate of acquittals leading to freedom is 15 percent and if you do not factor in conditional release and outpatient treatment numbers the rate drops to one percent. Although these numbers are from 1994, nevertheless the facts remain the same. The public has a misunderstanding of the use of the insanity plea which impacts jurors who are likely to have the same biases.

Proposal: Psychological Defect Plea

With these societal biases in place, it is nearly impossible for a serial killer to successfully achieve an insanity defense. For the most part, they do not fit the profile and I am not suggesting they should have to. However, it is necessary for these psychological and personality disorders to be addressed and acknowledged from a legal standpoint. As it stands today, these serial killers are being executed or incarcerated in prison for life. Most are not receiving treatment, therapy, and more importantly they are rarely interviewed by criminologists and psychologists for the purpose of learning more about their behavior.

Personality disorders often do not carry much legal weight because they are not considered major mental illnesses (Carter, 2009). Although serial killers, for the most part, seem to possess the capability to know right from wrong, the acts they commit are not always entirely voluntary. If the system were to recognize the inability or the hindrance of voluntary action by psychological disorders, including personality disorders, serial killers could be charged with their crimes and the state could acknowledge their psychological issues. With a psychological defect plea in place, those affected could receive treatment either as an inpatient at a mental hospital or in the facility where they are incarcerated. They would also be subject to mandatory behavioral studies by criminologists and psychologists for further understanding of their diseases and crimes.


Apsche, J.A. (1993). Probing the mind of a serial killer. Morrisville, PA: International Information Associates, Inc.

Carter, S.B. (2009). Justice for all: challenges of the mentally ill in the legal system. Louisville, CO: National Institute for Trial Advocacy.

DeFronzo, J., Ditta, A., Hannon, L., & Prochnow, J. (2007). Male serial homicide: the influence of structural and cultural variables. Homicide Studies, 11(1), 3-14.

Knight, Z.G. (2007). Sexually motivated serial killers and the psychology of aggression and "evil" within a contemporary psychoanalytical perspective. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 13(1), 21-35.

Krauss, D.A., & Lieberman, J.D. (2009). Psychological expertise in court. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Levin, J. (2008). Serial killers and sadistic murderers up close and personal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Mueller, R.S. (2005, September). Serial murder: multi-disciplinary perspectives for investigators. Retrieved from

Revitch, E., & Schlesinger, L.B. (1981). Psychopathology of homicide. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Simons, C.L. (2001). Antisocial personality disorder in serial killers: the thrill of the kill. The Justice Professional, 14(4), 345-356. 

Suggested Reading from StudentPulse

In Ireland, there are currently three forms of insanity: the insanity defence under Section 5, the defence of diminished responsibility under Section 6 and, finally, the unfit to be tried plea under Section 4. The purpose of raising the defence of insanity under Section 5 is to seek an exemption from criminal liability, based on the absence of mens rea, while the purpose of the partial defence of diminished responsibility under Section... MORE»
This paper presents and evaluates the varying roadblocks that make identifying and assessing emotional abuse to children so complex. This is the case for three primary reasons: the lack of a common definition of what constitutes emotional abuse and what does not; the wide variation in the frequency of child protection agencies substantiating... MORE»
Gestalt therapy is an empowering and germane framework for psychotherapy. It is uplifting for both practitioners and patients. Its objective is to bring about new awareness so that transition and problem-solving is possible. Clients are immediately equipped and responsible for doing real work, inspired and motivated to reach their own solutions. This approach entails moving in creativity from talk to action and experience (Corey, 2009). The theory... MORE»
The American Psychological Association (APA) Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct (2002) have multiple standards on competence. These standards are particularly relevant to clinical psychologists in Illinois given the fact that under The Clinical Psychologist Licensing Act, those licensed in this state are not required to continue... MORE»
In 1981, Ricky Rector of Conway, Arkansas went on a shooting spree that resulted in the death of one man and the injury of two bystanders. Ricky also shot and killed Officer Bob Martin, who had gone to the home of Rector’s mother after Ricky agreed to surrender. In 1982, the mentally retarded thirty-six-year-old was sentenced... MORE»
Submit to Student Pulse, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Student Pulse provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Student Pulse's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP