Panelists discuss implications of insanity defense

Jill Martin

Contrary to popular belief, the insanity defense is only successful in one percent of all the cases in which is it used.

This and other misconceptions regarding the insanity defense were discussed Wednesday in an open forum, featuring three prominent and widely recognized experts in the fields of law and forensic psychology.

The panel was composed of Anthony Pisa, a forensic psychologist and expert witness, Daniel J. McDevitt, deputy district attorney of Delaware County, Arthur Donato, criminal defense attorney. Dontato is an alumnus who participated in a radical student group while he was at Villanova, resulting in his dismissal from the University and subsequent reinstatement after legal action was pursued.

The speakers answered students’ questions for the entirety of the session, and the session was mediated by Dr. Bernard Gallagher, professor of sociology at the University.

The insanity defense is dictated by the M’Naughten Rule, which states that an individual can be considered insane for legal purposes when, as a defect of reason, that individual cannot appreciate the difference between right and wrong or the consequences of his or her behavior.

One of the most complex issues tackled at the forum was the intricacy surrounding integrating psychiatry into the legal term “insanity.”

Insanity, explained Pisa, is a legal concept which the world of psychiatry does not recognize as a mental disease. However, psychiatric concepts are necessary to determine whether or not a person knew the crime he or she committed was wrong at the time of the crime.

Because there is not usually palpable evidence backing up the insanity defense, it is often difficult to prove, Pisa said.

The insanity defense can result in one of four verdicts. The defendant can be found guilty or not guilty. Otherwise, a defendant can either be judged guilty but mentally ill or not guilty by reason of insanity.

“Misconceptions of the insanity defense really do hurt people who are sick because they need the system to understand their sickness, and that does not always happen,” Donato said.

The panel also discussed the Maryland Serial Sniper who has been terrorizing the Greater Washington, D.C, area since Oct. 2, killing nearly a dozen and wounding several others. Gallagher said, “When they catch this guy, his chances of using the insanity defense are next to none because of the conscious thought processes he is using,” Gallagher said.

“Because the sniper is using cognitive thought processes in finding a location, buying a gun and escaping, he or she cannot be deemed mentally incompetent.”