Myths Surrounding the Insanity Defense

The disproportionate fear of flying as compared to actual danger. The hype and phobias surrounding shark attacks. The widespread belief that the insanity defense is used in 37% of cases involving felonies, and that it is successful 44% of the time (Beyerstein, Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, 2010). What do these misconceptions have in common? For one, they are all given excessive attention by the media. Due to the availability heuristic, the average person will refer to what they have most heard or seen in order to make a judgment or decision, or even when forming a fear or belief. The media, by focusing inordinate amounts of coverage on events that attract viewers as opposed to stories that are more accurate and commonplace, are actively helping to permeate ideas, beliefs, and fears that may in reality be far removed from the truth.

In part due to the types of stories that receive so much coverage by the media, and perhaps due to other factors, a multitude of facts regarding the use of the insanity plea are distorted in the average person’s perception. The true figures of the afore-mentioned statistics are as follows; the insanity defense is used in less than 1% of trials, of which only 25% are successful (Beyerstein et al., 2010). This begs the question; what is contributing to the myth that the insanity defense is so widely utilized in trials?

Many people are familiar with the unique case of John Hinckley, the man who attempted to assassinate President Reagan. John Hinckley was acquitted of attempted murder charges on the basis of the insanity defense. Due to the fact that many people had seen the footage of the shots fired by Hinckley themselves, they could not understand how someone could be acquitted of attempting to murder the president. Since stories like this one receive so much coverage from beginning to end, when many people think of “insanity defense” they automatically refer to cases like that of Hinckley’s. And since, in the case of Hinckley and others, the suspect was acquitted due to the insanity defense, they assume that many people “escape justice” on these grounds. This is often how the availability heuristic works.

A basic understanding of the insanity defense, in addition to truer versions of statistics, can help clear up some confusion. First of all, the terms used in this plea – sane and insane – are not psychiatric terms, but legal terms. Insanity isn’t referring to whether someone is psychotic. Rather, insanity legally means that the defendant is incapable of comprehending their crime, or that they did not understand what they were doing or that it was wrong. The exact definition varies by state (for those states that have this verdict of course, Idaho not included).

It is vital to have at least a basic understanding of the insanity defense. Cases such as those of John Hinckley are an exception to the rule. Perhaps if the news media at least mentioned that these stories are exceptions, then people would be less confused. Not to mention that it would help to lessen the suffering of and to help people who truly qualify for falling under the insanity defense. People who qualify for the insanity defense would have a better chance at receiving the help they need in a hospital as opposed to a prison, or worse – death row.

This brings up another point. Is it fair for the news media to only portray the stories that draw the most viewers and make the most money at the expense of others? Is it okay that people are being sent to prison, when what they need is medical help, not prison or a death sentence? The National Association of Mental Health estimates that at least 10% of people on death row have a serious mental illness. And this is a conservative estimate (2011). Should we be killing people who have mental illnesses? Should the media be spreading the misconception that the insanity defense is overused? One thing, at least, is clear. We must be sure to check our facts, and to not buy in to the hype and buzz surrounding popular stories.


Beyerstein, Barry L., Lilienfeld, Scott O., Lynn, Steven J., Ruscio, John.         (2010). 50 great myths of popular psychology. Chichester, West Sussex;             Wiley-Blackwell.

Gross, S. O’brien, B., Hu, C., & Kennedy, E. H. (2014). Rate of false                 conviction of criminals who are sentenced to death. Proceedings of the             National Academy of Sciences. 111(20).

2011. Death penalty and people with mental illnesses. National Assocation of Mental Health. Retrieved 16 December 2015 from


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