Hastings Law Journal


Jodie English


With the enactment of the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, sweeping changes were wrought in the scope of the federal insanity defense. Prior to the Act's passage, federal courts had provided grounds for exculpation for offenders who suffered from either volitional or cognitive impairments. The successful insanity defense of would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley, Jr., however, provided the impetus for this federal legislation which markedly restricts the availability of the insanity defense to defendants in a federal criminal trial. The Insanity Defense Reform Act eliminates all provisions for excusing the volitionally compromised offender and recognizes a defense only for those mentally impaired persons who are cognitively impaired. The Article argues that the Act's abolition of a federal volitional insanity defense is contrary to historical understandings of the importance of free will to criminality, runs afoul of constitutional entitlements embodied in the eighth amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments and the fifth amendment's notion of substantive due process, and is impeachable from a policy perspective. The Article concludes by urging a return of a volitional insanity defense to federal criminal law.

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