"Honesty is the best policy, but insanity is a better defence."
- Steve Landesberg
Often, we find psychologists, and psychiatrists working towards solving murder mysteries. "Why do criminals do what they do?", has been a million-dollar question for the last few centuries, since the study of human behaviour was recognized as a science.
Let us take the examples of two of the most notorious serial killers in history, who pleaded the defence of insanity. In one case we see the failure of the plea, and in the other we see its success. However, it is still a subject of controversy whether the failure/success of such a defense is harmful, or beneficial to the legal systems of the world.
The first, is Jeffrey Dahmer. This man was described as a "psychotic" serial killer and sex offender in the year 1991. His never-ending list of offences involved sex crimes, cannibalism, necrophilia, and dismemberment. To understand the psychology behind Dahmer's bizarre and violent behaviour, psychologists applied their methods, and understood that since he was a young boy, Dahmer had shown signs of withdrawal, always avoided any interaction with other people, and stayed away from social situations. Even as a young boy, he would collect dead animals, and then proceed to dissect or mutilate them in various ways.
He committed his very first murder in 1978, by bludgeoning his victim to death. His victim was a hitchhiker by the name of Steven Hicks. When asked about this attack in court, Dahmer simply replied that he killed him because "the guy wanted to leave, and I didn't want him to".
Now, although I'm not a psychologist, I can safely assume that no normal human being, of sound mind, would commit murder simply because someone wanted to leave his or her company.
Dahmer collected "trophies" from his victims such as human skulls and genitalia, and kept the in his closet and would also "save" biceps and human hearts in the freezer for later consumption.
In his trial, Dahmer pled not guilty by reason of insanity. The plea was rejected and Dahmer was subsequently convicted of all 15 murder charges as well as sentenced to the full punishment of 15 consecutive life sentences. The case was viewed by many, and the criticism was that it seemed to render the defence of insanity as useless. They argued that if a clearly deranged criminal like Jeffrey Dahmer was rejected of his insanity plea, then the chances of any criminal qualifying for the defence was slim.
The second case, is that of John Hinckley Jr, which is probably one of the most famous instances of the plea of insanity being used as a defence in court.
In 1981, Hinckley developed an unexplained obsession with the movie Taxi Driver, which features Jodie Foster as a young child prostitute and co-stars with Robert De Niro who plays an individual called Travis Bickle, who plots to assassinate the film’s presidential candidate. Hinckley personally watched the movie 15 times consecutively, and grew infatuated with the actress Jodie Foster.
He even relocated to New Haven, Connecticut, where the actress was enrolled in Yale University, and proceeded to stalk her, by joining a writing class at Yale. His attempts grew more and desperate, and he went as far as to make plans to kill himself in front of her just to gain her attention.
Eventually he decided to attempt an assassination on President Ronald Reagan, so as to impersonate De Niro's character in the movie "Taxi Driver". As the president left the Hilton Hotel, Hinckley shot six times at Reagan. One of the bullets managed to reach the president and hit him in his chest, nevertheless, he survived the assassination attempt. Hinckley’s defence team pled for insanity defence and succeeded. He was acquitted of all of his 13 charges of assault, murder and weapon counts.
From the two cases, it is clear that insanity isn’t a medical definition in these cases, but a legal one. Hence, mental illnesses and insanity cannot be deemed as synonymous, because only a few mental illnesses can constitute insanity.
It becomes a very heavy burden indeed, on those professionals who are responsible for applying their psychological and psychiatric knowledge to cases like this, to see that justice is served in the most effective and humane way possible. When cases like these come to light, we, realize the importance of studying the human mind to carry out the duties of defending the laws of our nation.
By Swati Singh