Brain and Body

How Pleading Insane Could Backfire for Violent Defendants

November 2, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Albany court, judges, jury
Photo credit: Tracy Collins/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Convincing a jury that there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain might not be the smartest gameplay if you’re trying to avoid jail time.

Throughout time, violent offenders and murderers turn to the insanity defense — “not guilty by reason of insanity” or “guilty but insane or mentally ill.” Whether defendants argue that mental illness prohibited a normal decision-making process or that temporary insanity clouded their judgement in the moment the crime was committed, new research shows that jurors may conclude that the accused is a persistent threat who will commit further crimes in the future, according to new research.

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"Genetic evidence plays an increasingly important role in the criminal justice system, but people often perceive genetic information in biased ways," lead researcher Benjamin Cheung, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of British Columbia, said in a press release. "If we believe genes lie at the heart of criminal behavior, then we may think the defendant had no control over his actions, even if that isn't true."

In Cheung’s study, more than 600 participants read through one of three versions of a fictional murder scenario committed by a college student. The difference between the story versions was embedded in nature versus nurture. Some participants read about a case in which the defendant had a genetic variation associated with aggression and violent tendencies, while other participants read about a defendant who was beaten as a child by his single mother and grew up in a gang-ridden neighborhood. A control group read about the murder scenario with no background information on the perpetrator.

The participants who read that the defendant had a genetic explanation for his behavior were more likely to support an insanity defense and more likely to believe the defendant couldn’t control his actions. However, they were just as likely to support a guilty verdict regardless of the “nature” explanation for the crime.

"Defendants should be wary about using a genetic defense because it's a double-edged sword," said Cheung. "Judges or jurors may believe the perpetrator couldn't control his actions, but they may also think he is a danger to society who will strike again."

While the insanity plea seems to be a go-to explanation used by defense lawyers, it turns out the plea doesn't lead to lesser charges. Jurors will still see the perpetrator as a future threat to society.

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