Insanity defense and the issue with it

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 IndiaIt 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 Reus Non Facit 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 contend that some defendants abuse the insanity defense, feigning mental illness to secure acquittals or lighter sentences. Trials involving this defense attract significant public interest due to the unusual nature of the crimes involved, as noted by Baltimore defense attorney Cristina Gutierrez, who has handled numerous such cases over the years. While there have been notable instances where juries accepted the insanity defense, more frequently, defendants are deemed mentally competent to understand the wrongfulness of their actions. John Evander Couey, convicted of kidnapping, raping, and burying nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford alive, was deemed fit for execution in August 2007 despite his attorneys’ claims of mental disability. He passed away in 2009 from cancer before facing execution.

Andrea Yates, once an accomplished individual, was convicted in 2002 of murdering three of her five children by drowning them. Her initial conviction was overturned in 2005, and in 2006 she was found not guilty by reason of insanity due to severe postpartum depression and psychosis.

Mary Winkler was charged with first-degree murder in 2006 for shooting her husband, but was convicted of voluntary manslaughter due to evidence of physical and mental abuse. She served a brief sentence in a mental facility.

Anthony Sowell, a registered sex offender, faced numerous charges including murder and rape for the deaths of 11 women. He pleaded not guilty and was not found to be insane by prosecutors.

Lisa Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to death for strangling a pregnant woman and cutting out her unborn child. Her defense claimed mental illness, specifically pseudocyesis, but she was found guilty due to evidence of premeditation.

Ted Bundy, known for his charm and intelligence, unsuccessfully pleaded insanity during his trial for murder. Despite his defense, he was executed in 1989 after overwhelming evidence against him.


It seems like you’re discussing the complexities and issues surrounding the legal treatment of individuals with mental illness who commit crimes. Here are some key points based on your text:

  1. Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI): This verdict allows individuals who commit crimes while mentally ill to avoid criminal conviction if they can prove they were not sane at the time of the offense. However, it often results in long-term confinement in psychiatric hospitals, even after sanity is restored, due to fears of relapse and public safety concerns.
  2. Criticism of NGRI: Critics argue that NGRI can be unpredictable, rarely successful, and may not always prevent future violence if individuals are released after treatment. This can lead to ongoing confinement and challenges reintegrating into society even after recovery.
  3. Alternative Verdicts: Some states have introduced “Guilty but Mentally Ill” (GBMI) verdicts, where individuals are convicted but receive mental health treatment during incarceration. However, there have been issues with ensuring proper treatment under this verdict.
  4. Proposed Solutions: There’s a suggestion to reform laws to sentence mentally ill individuals to mandatory long-term treatment, possibly longer than a standard criminal sentence, to ensure they receive treatment and prevent future violence. This treatment could occur in secure psychiatric settings if necessary.
  5. Challenges: The current system faces challenges with balancing public safety, individual rights, and effective treatment for mental illness within the criminal justice framework. Issues such as inadequate treatment under GBMI and concerns about relapse after NGRI acquittals highlight ongoing dilemmas.

 The debate around the insanity defense and treatment of mentally ill offenders revolves around finding a balance between justice, public safety, and effective mental health care. Various legal strategies have been proposed and implemented, each with its own advantages and challenges in addressing these complex issues.


Insanity pleas succeed in about 17% of cases in Indian High Courts over the past decade. Though rarely used globally, including in India, there’s a pressing need for clearer laws and tests. Distinguishing between violent criminals and those genuinely insane, and preventing confusion with cases involving alcohol or drug influence, remains crucial. States must implement stricter laws to ensure the proper use of this defense.

Khushboo Handa(legal intern)

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