2.5 Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity

2.4 The Next Shoe Drops

Book Two / 5

Seeking to prove himself not guilty of the charges against him as a result of insanity, Myers had chosen a defense that was time-tested for credibility yet enmeshed in a contemporary controversy.  Distinguished by a British pedigree and over a century of common law development in our own country, the insanity defense was nevertheless entering another era of uncertainty, an era born from economic expansion, inequality, and unrest.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, this country had joined the global trend toward large, condensed urban populations.  With that trend came inevitable issues involving the cost and distribution of public health resources, including social and mental health services.  A backlash had developed against individuals who qualified for those services but could neither find nor afford them.  Inevitably their destitution brought them into public contact with others, a contact too close for comfortable interaction.

Ours was a society suddenly flush with the tools and toys of a new high-tech economy.  Within that economy, however, many workers were experiencing pressure to perform faster and better or — the threat loomed — be replaced by someone younger, or merely someone else.  We all felt that pressure, but rather than pushing back we passed it on to those beneath the surface economy, the jobless and the homeless.  Tired and anxious, we began to believe that we were bearing the brunt of their failure to properly manage their own lives.

We were also fatigued from the forced, often threatening interactions on the streets with individuals who seemed unwilling to accept the social compact of self-responsibility — a concept that had won the popularity contests.  Over time we’d lost the patience to distinguish between those whose failures were due to a self-imposed lack of effort and engagement, and those whose illness, addiction, or marginalized existence compelled their violent or anti-social behavior.

And when that violent behavior landed them before a court, any attempt to plead insanity was met by an increasingly skeptical public.  We had begun to view the insanity defense warily, to scrutinize its purpose and question its results.  Often we considered the defense to be simply another excuse for a defendant’s unwillingness to control his criminal behavior, another way to escape accountability.

As a result, the possibility of a middle road approach between the barbarity of incarcerating the criminally insane and the outrage of an acquittal on the grounds of insanity became once again a part of the public and professional discussion.  But the discussions often jumped over the wide gulf between the sane and the insane.  They missed all those in the middle who may not be legally insane, but were still seriously mentally ill or chronically addicted.

Left largely untouched and unanswered, both in the media and the public at large, was the question dogging those who actually worked in the trenches of the country’s criminal trial courts:  what to do with all of the mentally ill defendants who fall outside the definition of legally insane, yet have clearly visible impediments to conforming with social and legal expectations?

The courts and the jails have been filled with criminal defendants whose behavior and appearance suggest what the law terms a nexus between a mental illness and the crimes with which the defendants are charged and convicted.  Nearly always their families have struggled for years against both the illness and the criminality, either as victims themselves or as helpless witnesses to their loved-ones’ slow disintegration.

The courts perceive the illness, and jail staff medicate its symptoms.  Families suffer its impacts on their relationships, and either deal with or deny its dangers.  Meanwhile the defendants, due to the illness itself, remain in a quickening cycle of disability and dysfunction that drives them repeatedly into criminal behavior.  From criminal behavior they enter the jails and the courts when caught, then eventually return to the streets, untreated and ill prepared.

Once captured within the system of criminal prosecution, a defendant’s illness almost always worsens, and his options for a successful reintegration into his family and community disappear.  Exaggerated through the prism of his experience with incarceration, a defendant’s perception of his responsibility for the events that landed him there becomes distorted.  He feels that while engaged in the charged offense he was not really himself.  Or he was aware of what he was doing, but he was unable to control his behavior.  His lack of control over his circumstances in jail and in the courtrooms further supports his feelings of disempowerment and despair, and encourages a skewed self-interpretation of his prior criminal acts.

Though difficult enough with an attorney, every aspect of this cycle is exaggerated within the mind of a mentally ill defendant who insists on defending himself.  Eventually, while talking with other inmates or simply dwelling on his situation, he may recall that if found insane he would be considered not guilty of the crimes charged.  He feels himself falling apart, and understands on some level that if things had been different — if he had been different — he would not have done what he did.

Not knowing the standard of insanity he must meet to be acquitted, but feeling increasingly certain that something is wrong and getting worse, he seeks an evaluation and begins to pursue an insanity defense.


A similar recognition of his own illness and of his vulnerability in the courts pervaded the acts and motivations of Terence Myers.  Almost certainly he was unaware of the history of the defense he pursued, had read none of the volumes of case law responsible for its development, and could not on his own discuss its critical components.  Nevertheless, through his motion that day for a judgment of not guilty by reason of insanity, he had unwittingly joined an international discussion on the mentally ill criminal, and compelled our court’s entry into a time-worn search for a wiser approach.

2.6 M’Naghten’s Case