Temporary Insanity

In legal terms, insanity refers to a disorder of the mind which impairs an individual’s ability to know right from wrong, or otherwise prevents him from understanding that his actions are wrong. In the prosecution of a criminal case, a defendant who is normally free from mental disorder may assert that he was insane only briefly, at the time he committed the crime of which he is accused, and that temporary insanity caused him to unaware of the nature of the crime. The defendant does not have to be insane at the time of the trial to use temporary insanity as a defense. To explore this concept, consider the temporary insanity definition.

Definition of Temporary Insanity


  1. An unsoundness of the mind which the law recognizes as freeing one from responsibility for committing a crime, or which indicates a lack of legal capacity for entering into a legal contract.


1580-1590       Latin    insānitās

What is Temporary Insanity

Temporary insanity is a criminal law defense that may be used by a defendant who has been charged with a serious crime. This defense is used to claim that the defendant was not liable for his actions because some psychological trauma, psychiatric illness episode, or medical condition rendered him insane, or unable to know right from wrong, at the time he committed the crime. This is based on the assumption that an individual who cannot choose between right and wrong, or who is unable to understand the implications of his actions, cannot be held criminally liable.

History of the Insanity Defense

The insanity defense dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times. In colonial America, the first distinction between insanity and criminal behavior occurred in 1638 when Dorothy Talbye murdered her daughter and was sentenced to death by hanging. Although England’s King Edward II had, during his 14th century reign, declared that a person whose mental capacity was no more than a dumb beast, should be considered insane, and be spared from criminal prosecution, American common law offered no distinction between mental illness and criminal behavior.

The Supreme Court on Temporary Insanity

The 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case Ford v. Wainwright addressed the issues of temporary insanity, insanity that develops after conviction, and the death penalty. Alvin Ford was convicted of murder in 1974, and sentenced to death in Florida. Eight years on death row saw Ford’s mental condition decline to the point that he exhibited symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

Ford often referred to himself as Pope John Paul III, and bragged that he had foiled a Ku Klux Klan conspiracy to bury dead prisoners within the prison walls, and a plot by prison guards to bring his female relatives to the prison for torture. In his mind, Ford personally appointed new justices to the Florida Supreme Court, and declared he could leave whenever he wanted. His belief that he was free to go stemmed from a belief that, if someone executed him, that individual would in turn be subjected to execution.

In 1986, the Supreme Court heard Ford v. Wainwright. This law ruled that a person who was deemed insane could not be executed, even if they were found guilty. It also declared that a person facing the death penalty is entitled to be evaluated for competency. The Court ruled that executing a person who is insane would be “savage and inhumane,” and took execution off the table for anyone deemed insane.

In this opinion, the Court specified the procedures to be required in evaluating sanity, and competence for trial. Resulting law prohibits execution of someone who is deemed to be legally insane at the time execution is to take place. This means that even if an individual was sane at the time he was convicted and sentenced, if his mental state diminishes into insanity, he cannot be executed.

What is a Temporary Insanity Defense

The temporary insanity defense may be used in criminal court proceedings to show that the defendant was not liable for his actions, as he was insane while committing the crime. Temporary insanity is difficult to prove, as it requires the defense to demonstrate to the court a credible reason the accused was insane when the crime was committed, but is sane at the time of the trial. Because any psychiatric evaluations on the case could only occur after the incident, it can be difficult to obtain credible medical testimony on such matters.

Each jurisdiction has specific laws defining temporary insanity, which also specify elements that must be met in order for a temporary insanity defense to be successful. There are, however, certain elements that are commonly used, including:

  • The accused must have suffered from the mental defect at the time he committed the crime.
  • That mental defect caused the accused to be unable to know either that the criminal act was wrong, or the nature and seriousness of the criminal act.
  • Because of the mental defect, the accused was unable to control his actions, exempting him from liability, even if he understood that the act was wrong. This is part of the irresistible impulse insanity defense, which is not commonly used in modern U.S. law.

How Temporary Insanity is Determined

When a defendant claims a temporary insanity defense, the law requires he be evaluated by competent mental health professionals. After completing a psychiatric evaluation, the psychiatrist or psychologist will testify before the court regarding the defendant’s probable mental state at the time he committed the crime. Because, when used as a defense to criminal charges, insanity is a legal term, and not a medical term, stating emphatically that the defendant was “insane” at the time of the crime is often difficult.

The testimony of a mental health professional must, therefore, answer the questions of law, and allow the judge and jury to decide whether the testimony and other evidence in the case allow for a finding of criminal insanity, or of temporary insanity. Those legal questions that must be answered by the expert witness include:

  1. The defendant was unable to tell right from wrong, or did not understand what he did, because of a psychiatric or psychological illness.
  2. The defendant, because of psychiatric or psychological illness, was unable to control his impulsive behavior.
  3. Regardless of the specific psychiatric diagnosis, the defendant’s mental illness or defect caused him to act.
  4. Because of a specifically diagnosed mental illness or defect, the defendant could not understand the criminality of his actions.

What Happens to the Criminally Insane

When a defendant is successful in using the temporary insanity defense, the consequences vary depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstances surrounding the case. An individual determined not guilty by reason of insanity is usually committed to a mental facility, where he can be evaluated and treated. While it may seem that such a sentence is better than a prison sentence, commitment to a mental institution may entail confinement for twice as long as the corresponding prison sentence.

Laws in the U.S. do not allow such a facility to hold an individual deemed criminal insane indefinitely, but requires periodic review by the institution’s mental health professionals to determine whether he requires continued treatment. In many jurisdictions, a six month review is required, followed by a review ever year. In the event the facility determines that the individual can be discharged, it must provide the district attorney notice, and allow a period of time, usually 30 days, for any objections to be made.

While individuals found not guilty by reason of insanity are not released directly back into the public, and rarely given supervised release right away, cases of temporary insanity may be handled differently. A person who was determined to have acted out of a temporary mental defect, such as in the heat of passion, but who has no mental defect at the time of trial, may be released with supervision, such as probation. It is not uncommon for such a defendant to be ordered to attend counseling.

For example:

Martin suffers from a developmental disability which causes him to behave much younger than his 28 years. Martin lives at home with his parents, and has a penchant for slasher movies, loving the thrill and suspense they provide. One day Martin becomes angry that his mother won’t let him have his favorite ice cream for dinner, and during a tantrum, he picks up a kitchen knife and stabs her, killing her.

Martin is assigned an attorney who quickly makes a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetence, and a psychiatric evaluation is ordered. The psychiatrist agrees that Martin did not have the ability to distinguish between make believe violence and the real thing, which involves very permanent death. The court finds Martin not guilty by reason of insanity, and orders him to be held and evaluated at a mental institution.

Although Martin committed a very serious and violent crime, the institution does not have the authority to hold him indefinitely. Martin must be evaluated and treated, then his custody must be re-evaluated at six months. If it is determined that he likely still poses a harm to others, Martin may be kept in the facility, with another re-evaluation each year. If at some point Martin’s doctors feel he could be released to go home, they must provide advanced notice to the prosecutor, who must be given at least 30 days to object to his release.

Insanity Plea Statistics

The number of not guilty by reason of insanity please across the nation is very low, at less than one percent (0.85%). Of those attempting an insanity plea, success in being acquitted is even more rare, at about 0.26%. Most defendants, about 70%, who have initially entered an insanity plea withdraw their plea after a court-ordered evaluation finds them legally sane.

States with No Insanity Defense

It is worth noting that not all states allow defendants to be acquitted on the basis of an insanity plea. Most of these states instead allow for a finding of “guilty but insane,” which provides for institutionalization rather than prison. These states include Montana, Utah, Kansas, and Idaho.

First Criminal Use of Temporary Insanity Plea

Daniel Edgar Sickles, a commander at the Battle of Gettysburg, successful author, college-educated attorney, U.S. minister to Spain and England, and U.S. senator and Congressman, was a man who rarely followed the rules. Throughout multiple careers, Sickles brought censure upon himself through scandalous behaviors.

Sickles had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and married a woman roughly half his age, she was 15, and he was 33. Although Sickles was known to associate closely with a known prostitute, and was reprimanded for bringing her to the Senate, and for taking her to London, where he introduced her to Queen Victoria, after leaving his pregnant wife at home.

Ironically, he was undone by his anger over learning his young wife was having an affair with Philip Barton Key II, District Attorney of the District of Columbia, and son of Francis Scott Key. After Sickles found a letter giving away the affair, he confronted his wife, and forced her to write a confession. The following day, Sickles saw Key, and followed him, shouting profanities, and claiming he must die. Sickles then shot at Key, the bullet missing its mark. Key then attempted to fight off Sickles, but Sickles pulled out another gun, and shot Key in the groin, and finally in the chest, killing him.

Sickles immediately turned himself in, and was charged with murder. Oddly enough, he was allowed so many visitors during his confinement, that he was allowed to use the jailer’s personal apartment, and he was even allowed to keep his personal weapon.

During his trial, Sickles made the first plea of temporary insanity the U.S. had ever seen. Sickles’ attorney, Edwin Stanton, argued to the jury that Sickles had been driven insane by his wife’s infidelity, and so he was out of his mind when he shot Key. The written, and detailed, confession of Sickles’ wife was key in winning the acquittal. Sickles withdrew from society for a brief time, riding the wave of public drama, controversy, and sympathy, though he continued working with Congress after the trial ended.

Lorena Bobbitt Not Guilty by Reason of Temporary Insanity

John Wayne Bobbitt and Lorena Bobbitt married in June of 1989. Four years into their marriage, Lorena claimed her husband raped her, though no evidence ever surfaced backing up her claims. Lorena reported to police that, while John was sleeping after the “rape,” she went into the kitchen and picked up a knife. She then went into the bedroom and off his penis. Lorena then left the apartment with the body part and threw it out of her car widow. After realizing what she had done, she called the police and reported the crime. Lorena was immediately arrested, though law enforcement located the man’s penis and it was reattached during nearly 10-hour surgery.

During questioning, Lorena told police that her husband was selfish and did not care about her sexual needs. When the trial commenced, both John and Lorena revealed details about their unhealthy relationship and the circumstances that led to the crime. Lorena claimed that John repeatedly abused her during the course of the marriage, was unfaithful, and even forced her to have an abortion at one point. Her defense team claimed that his constant abuse and infidelity caused Lorena to live in constant fear of her husband, and to suffer from clinical depression, which eventually led to her actions that night.

Expert witnesses for both sides painted in a picture of ongoing abuse in which Lorena believed her husband’s threat of “I will find you, whether we’re divorced or separated. And wherever I find you, I’ll have sex with you whenever I want to.” Lorena’s attorneys argued that this pattern of abuse and rape created an “irresistible impulse,” to protect herself, which qualifies as temporary insanity.

The jury deliberated for only seven hours, then returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The jury stated that Lorena had an irresistible impulse to hurt John in a sexual manner due to his abuse. They declared that she could not be held liable for her actions, as she was suffering from temporary insanity. Lorena was ordered to undergo a 45-day mental evaluation at the state mental hospital, and was released shortly thereafter.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Criminal Law – The body of law dealing with criminal offenses and their punishment.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.

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