February 20, 2008

"I've always been crazy . . .

. . . but it's kept me from going insane"

Those Waylon Jennings lyrics echoed in my head upon seeing today's article in the New York Times differentiating craziness from legal insanity.

The article, "Actions Considered Insane Often Don't Meet the Standards of New York's Legal System," highlights the case of David Tarloff, a chronic schizophrenic awaiting trial in the slashing death of a Manhattan therapist. But it is relevant across the board to the insanity defense, which is widely misunderstood by the general public and even many in the mental health professions.

The defense, which varies by jurisdiction but generally requires that the defendant did not know the difference between right and wrong, is rarely employed and is even more rarely successful.

As Ronald Kuby, a criminal defense lawyer, put it in the article, "You can be extremely crazy without being legally insane. You can hear voices, you can operate under intermittent delusions, you can see rabbits in the road that aren't there and still be legally sane."

Another public misconception is that successful use of the insanity defense allows people to "get off" for the crime. In reality, most insanity acquittees are sent to locked state hospitals that look very much like prisons. They often spend more time locked up than if they had been convicted of their crime.

The New York Times article is temporarily available here. A previous blog post of mine on high-profile insanity cases is here. Wikipedia has more information on the insanity defense.

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