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

By Allyson L. Gay
2010, Vol. 2 No. 10 | pg. 2/3 |

Sadistic killers are broken down into three main categories, and five subcategories, of which only one, the visionary sadist, can argue insanity as it is now. The visionary sadistic killer is the must uncommon of the sadistic lust killers, the sexual sadists. These sadistic killers suffer from hallucinations and/or delusions – hearing or seeing visions instructing he or she to kill. The visionary killer is considered psychotic or insane and typically, these are the serial killers who successful achieve an insanity defense.

The second two, mission-oriented and hedonistic, cannot currently argue an insanity defense. Mission-oriented sadistic killers work to eliminate what they believe is an undesirable group of people. They do not suffer from delusions or any apparent psychological shortcomings, and they understand that what they are doing is wrong and thus cannot argue insanity. The third type, the most common and most dangerous, is the hedonistic sadistic killer. Hedonistic sadistic killers are broken down into five subcategories: the lust-oriented type, thrill-oriented type, comfort-oriented, control-oriented, and predatory.

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 p 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.