Law School piece is the best short summary I have found of the
various insanity defenses.
The McNaughton rule -- not knowing right from wrong
The first famous legal test for insanity came in 1843, in the McNaughton case.
Englishman Daniel McNaughton shot and killed the secretary of the British
Prime Minister, believing that the Prime Minister was conspiring against
him. The court acquitted McNaughton "by reason of insanity," and
he was placed in a mental institution for the rest of his life. However,
the case caused a public uproar, and Queen Victoria ordered the court
to develop a stricter test for insanity.
The "McNaughton rule" was a standard to be applied by the jury,
after hearing medical testimony from prosecution and defense experts.
The rule created a presumption of sanity, unless the defense proved "at
the time of committing the act, the accused 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."
The McNaughton rule became the standard for insanity in the United States
and the United Kingdom, and is still the standard for insanity in almost
half of the states.
The Durham rule -- "irresistible impulse"
Monte Durham was a 23-year-old who had been in and out of prison and
mental institutions since he was 17. He was convicted for housebreaking
in 1953, and his attorney appealed. Although the district court judge
had ruled that Durham's attorneys had failed to prove he didn't know
the difference between right and wrong, the federal appellate judge chose
to use the case to reform the McNaughton rule.
Citing leading psychiatrists and jurists of the day, the appellate judge
stated that the McNaughton rule was based on "an entirely obsolete
and misleading conception of the nature of insanity." He overturned
Durham's conviction and established a new rule. The Durham rule states "that
an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the
product of mental disease or mental defect."
The Durham rule was eventually rejected by the federal courts, because
it cast too broad a net. Alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, and drug addicts
had successfully used the defense to defeat a wide variety of crimes.
The Model Penal Code: turning responsibility to the jury The American
Law Institute - Model Penal Code.
In 1972, the American Law Institute, a panel of legal experts, developed
a new rule for insanity as part of the Model Penal Code. This rule says
that a defendant is not responsible for criminal conduct where (s)he,
as a result of mental disease or defect, did not possess "substantial
capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform
his conduct to the requirements of the law." This new rule was based
on the District of Columbia Circuit's decision in the federal appellate
case, United States v. Brawner, 471 F.2d 969 (1972).
The Federal rule: Reagan gets into the act
In 1984, Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, the Comprehensive
Crime Control Act. The federal insanity defense now requires the defendant
to prove, by "clear and convincing evidence," that "at
the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the
defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable
to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts" (18
U.S.C. § 17). This is generally viewed as a return to the "knowing
right from wrong" standard. The Act also contained the Insanity
Defense Reform Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. § 4241, which sets out sentencing
and other provisions for dealing with offenders who are or have been
suffering from a mental disease or defect.