739 F.2d 994 (5th Cir. 1984), 82-3429, United States v. Lyons

Docket Nº:82-3429.
Citation:739 F.2d 994
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Robert LYONS, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:August 13, 1984
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

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739 F.2d 994 (5th Cir. 1984)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


Robert LYONS, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 82-3429.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 13, 1984

Julian R. Murray, Jr., New Orleans, La., for defendant-appellant.

John P. Volz, U.S. Atty., Patrick J. Fanning, Harry W. McSherry, Jr., Asst. U.S. Attys., New Orleans, La., Sidney Glazer, Joel Gershowitz, Attys., Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., for plaintiff-appellee.

Donald N. Bersoff, Washington, D.C., for Am. Psychological Assoc.

B. James George, Jr., Joel I. Klein, Am. Psychiatric Assoc., Washington, D.C., Richard P. Lynch, Director, American Bar Association, Washington, D.C., Wallace D. Riley, Chicago, Ill., for American Bar Ass'n.

Frank Maloney, Austin, Tex., for Nat. Assoc. Crim. Defense Lawyers.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

(Opinion Rendered April 16, 1984, 731 F.2d 243)

ALVIN B. RUBIN, Circuit Judge, with whom TATE, Circuit Judge, joins dissenting.

Criminal law punishes the wrongdoer. It attempts to deter others lest they suffer the same fate. If the state punishes a person for conduct that he had no ability to avoid, it imposes punishment without fault. The majority opinion appears to accept these propositions for it recognizes the validity of the plea of insanity for those people who, as a result of a mental disease or defect, lack substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct. It denies the plea, however, to those persons who suffer a mental disease or defect that causes them to lack the ability to control their conduct. Therefore, even were the issue of the legal definition of insanity properly before the court, I could not join in the decision to draw a line between these two kinds of mental illness. That distinction is constructed on faulty premises and erodes the moral integrity of our criminal justice system.

The majority offers several reasons for its decision both to reexamine and to change the method by which we determine who is criminally responsible. It suggests that "new policy considerations" justify reexamination of the ALI-Model Penal Code test. It expresses concern over the risk of "fabrication" and "moral mistakes" created when experts testify about whether the defendant has the capacity to control his behavior and the risk of confusing juries with psychiatric testimony. Finally, the majority finds reassurance in one doctor's testimony before a congressional committee that the volitional test is "superfluous" for "most psychotic persons." (Emphasis supplied.)

The insanity defense reflects the fundamental moral principles of our criminal law. An adjudication of guilt is more than a factual determination that the defendant pulled a trigger, took a bicycle, or sold heroin. It is a moral judgment that the individual is blameworthy. "Our collective

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conscience does not allow punishment where it cannot impose blame." 1 Our concept of blameworthiness rests on assumptions that are older than the Republic: "man is naturally endowed with these two great faculties, understanding and liberty of will." 2 "[H]istorically, our substantive criminal law is based on a theory of punishing the viscious will. It postulates a free agent confronted with a choice between doing right and wrong, and choosing freely to do wrong." 3 Central, therefore, to a verdict of guilty is the concept of responsibility. Recognition of the insanity defense rests on the conclusion that "it is unjust to punish a person who because of mental illness is without understanding of the nature or quality of his conduct and lacks the capacity to conform his behavior." 4 An acquittal by reason of insanity is a judgment that the defendant is not guilty because, as a result of his mental condition, he is unable to make an effective choice regarding his behavior. 5

The majority does not controvert these fundamental principles; indeed it accepts them as the basis for the defense when the accused suffers from a disease that impairs cognition. It rests its decision to redefine insanity and to narrow the defense on "new policy considerations." The opinion does not fully articulate these considerations, but I discuss what appear to be the principal ones.

The first is the potential threat to society created by the volitional prong of the insanity defense. Public opposition to any insanity-grounded defense is often based, either explicitly or implicitly, on the view that the plea is frequently invoked by violent criminals who fraudulently use it to evade just punishment. Some critics perceive the insanity defense as an opportunity for criminals to use psychiatric testimony to mislead juries. This perception depicts an insanity trial as a "circus" of conflicting expert testimony that confuses a naive and sympathetic jury. And it fears insanity acquittees as offenders who, after manipulating the criminal justice system, are soon set free to prey once again on the community. 6

Despite the prodigious volume of writing devoted to the plea, 7 the empirical data that are available provide little or no support for these fearsome perceptions and in many respects directly refute them. Both the frequency and the success rate of insanity pleas are grossly overestimated by professionals and lay persons alike; the plea is rarely made, and even more rarely

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successful. 8 The number of insanity pleas based on control defects, as compared to those based on lack of cognition, must have been almost negligible.

The perception that the defendant who successfully pleads insanity is quickly released from custody is also based only on assumption. Although an acquittal by reason of insanity ends the criminal jurisdiction of federal courts (except in the District of Columbia), and of the courts of a few states, the acquittee is not simply set free. "The truth is that in almost every case, the acquittee is immediately hospitalized and evaluated for dangerousness. Usually, the acquittee remains hospitalized for an extended time." 9

In sum, the available evidence belies many of the assumptions upon which much popular criticism of the insanity defense are based. The plea is rarely invoked, usually fails, and, when it is successful, the acquittees rarely go free.

Another set of objections to the plea is based on the thesis that factfinders--especially juries--are confused and manipulated by the vagueness of the legal standards of insanity and the notorious "battle of the experts" who present conclusory, superficial, and misleading testimony. These conditions, the argument runs, conspire to produce inconsistent and "inaccurate" verdicts.

Let us first put these objections in perspective. Most cases involving an insanity plea do not go to trial; instead, like most other criminal cases, they are settled by a plea bargain. In many of the cases that do go to trial, psychiatric testimony is presented by deposition, without disagreement among experts, and without opposition by the prosecution. 10 And in the few cases in which a contest does develop, the defendant

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is usually convicted. 11 Hence the stereotypic "circus tent" may be raised in only a handful of cases.

The manipulated-jury argument is supported largely by declamation, not data. Although there is some evidence to support the assertion that the wording of the insanity defense has little impact on trial outcomes, 12 one major study of jury reactions to criminal cases involving the insanity defense reached conclusions...

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