Trope-ic Thunder: Live Free or DSM-V

Trope-ic Thunder BannerBy Drew Parton

First off, can we talk about just how awesome that new banner is? All of the banners and art on the website are designed by the very talented Sarah Lawrence, writer of SciFridays. God damn, look at that.

Anyway, this week, I’ll be writing what will probably be my last psychology-themed article for a while simply because I’ve been writing a lot about it recently. But one of you asked me a question about a previous column and just what I mean when I said that “insanity” is a legal term.


Sane/Insane is a courtroom standard that’s not used by doctors, psychologists, or psychiatrists. You hear about an “insanity defense” or “not guilty by reason of insanity” all the time in the media. First off, the insanity defense is used extremely rarely; second off, it’s successful even more rarely; and third off, you don’t just get to go home- you have to go to a Mental Health Unit, in a hospital, and basically live there until you are rehabilitated. And MHU’s are not fun at all, in some ways they are even worse than jail. You can’t ever be alone (even to sleep), most of the time they keep you drugged. You don’t ever get to go outside or really do fun things. It can be a whole new flavor of hell. Once the hospital or MHU clears you and deems you rehabilitated, you are released and get to restart your life (usually with parole).

Now, what “insane” means in a court of law is a perpetrator’s mental state is one “that excuses individual responsibility for committing criminal offenses on the grounds that those who lack rational awareness of what they’re doing need treatment, not punishment.

old-courtThe defense was first used in 1843 in England in the case of Daniel M’Naghten who tried to assassinate the British Prime Minister because he had delusions that the Minister was personally responsible for M’Naghten’s downtrodden life. The court declared M’Nagthen not guilty because of his mental state and the resulting controversy led to what’s called the “M’Nagthen Right/Wrong” rule. The rule demands empirical evidence that because of the perpetrator’s mental condition, the defendant lacked the cognitive ability to understand the nature of their actions. In other words, the defense must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is (or was, at the time of the crime) unable to distinguish right from wrong. Since then, the US criminal justice system has added other caveats- such as the irresistable impulse clause (that because of a mental defect, the defendant had an inability to restrain their actions).

Now, all of this is different from the ruling “guilty but mentally ill.” This measure was created after a big hullabaloo erupted when President Regan’s attempted assassin was found not guilty by reason of insanity. With this new type of ruling, a judge could basically say, yes, this person is mentally ill and needs help, but they knew what they did is wrong. MV5BNjcyMjY4MTYyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODE2NDUxMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_This is what movies like Primal Fear and Identity get wrong. You see, Dissociative Identity Disorder (formally known as Multiple Personality Disorder) has quite a controversy surrounding it right now (as to whether it is a legitimate disorder, but more on that another time), but it will consistently fail the M’Nagthen test because SOMEbody in there knows what they did was wrong (usually).

In this case, the jury may find the defendant “guilty but mentally ill.” What does this mean for the defendant? Well, first, you get checked into an MHU for counseling and rehabilitation- same as in “not guilty by reason of insanity,” but the difference is that in this case, once you’re release and rehabilitated, you then go straight back to jail to serve out the remainder of your sentence- yes, without passing go or collecting $200.

Court-LawyersIn order to evaluate which of those two it is, the defendant first undergoes “criminal commitment” in which criminal is voluntarily (or some times involuntarily) committed to an MHU for evaluation. There, psychiatrists, counselors, and psychologists analyze the defendant to say first, whether or not he is “competent to stand trial”- meaning that the person is together enough to even recall what happened or form coherent sentences and narratives. If not, they don’t even go to trial. But if the defendant is competent, then they decide to what degree are they mentally ill and advise the court as to whether they should be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” or “guilty but mentally ill.”

Hope that answers your question! Be sure to join me again next week as I discuss science tropes in the media. And be sure to check out my other column, where I review dumb-ass action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays

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If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

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