Political Insanity Defense

by Bob Schwartz

People have watched enough criminal trials on TV to know about the insanity defense—or actually defenses, since it differs state to state:


  • What are the legal standards for insanity?

Each state, and the District of Columbia, has its own statute setting out the standard for determining whether a defendant was legally insane, and therefore not responsible, at the time his crime was committed. In general, the standards fall into two categories.

About half of the states follow the “M’Naughten” rule, based on the 1843 British case of Daniel M’Naughten, a deranged woodcutter who attempted to assassinate the prime minister. He was acquitted, and the resulting standard is still used in 26 states in the U.S.: A defendant may be found not guilty by reason of insanity if “at the time of committing the act, he was laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.” (emphasis added) This test is also commonly referred to as the “right/wrong” test.

Twenty-two jurisdictions use some variation of the Model Standard set out by the American Law Institute (A.L.I.) in 1962. Under the A.L.I. rule, a defendant is not held criminally responsible “if at the time of his conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.” (emphasis added) The A.L.I. rule is generally considered to be less restrictive than the M’Naughten rule.

Some states that use the M’Naughten rule have modified it to include a provision for a defendant suffering under “an irresistible impulse” which prevents him from being able to stop himself from committing an act that he knows is wrong.

Three states — Montana, Idaho, and Utah — do not allow the insanity defense at all.

PBS Frontline: A Crime of Insanity

What if—and I know this is far-fetched and fantastical—some political candidate was suffering from what some of the states call “mental disease or defect”? Could that candidate claim no responsibility for behavior on or off the campaign trail? No responsibility for behavior in office, if by some chance elected?

Such a candidate might claim—and again, far-fetched and fantastical—that ISIS will be taking over the United States if he is not elected. That Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is part of a “secret deal” and a vast conspiracy to defeat him. That he, the candidate, is a savior, and that he and he alone in all the world is capable of saving the nation.

This is fertile territory for legal, psychological and political scholars, as far-fetched and fantastical as it may be.