Fault Lines
11 December 2017

Juries Agree: Women Are Insane

Dec. 22, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — At Quartz, Olivia Goldhill argues that the Insanity Defense is much more successful in criminal proceedings for women than it is for men.  The article is interesting and well written, as well as difficult to rebut.   An attorney who is attempting an insanity defense on behalf of a defendant must convince the trier of fact that her client was legally insane and thus not legally responsible for her actions.  The article indicates that this is an easier task when the client is a female, and she cites several reasons for why that may be the case.

In Goldhill’s examinations, she focuses mainly on murder cases, which is fair. Insanity defenses rarely play a role in cases that don’t involve violence, and the article points out that crimes of heinous violence actually work in favor for a woman defendant asserting an insanity defense.

“Within the criminal justice system, we don’t like to acknowledge that women are capable of committing particular heinous crimes,” [criminal law lecturer Siobhan] Weare says.

While a jury may have no problem believing that a man would commit an atrocious act of violence because he is harsh and cruel, apparently a woman would only do something along those lines because she was mentally ill. While this outlook is certainly sexist, it may also apply outside of just the insanity defense.  In 2004, a jury in Houston, Texas convicted Susan Wright of tying her husband to a bed and stabbing him 193 times.  That same jury sentenced her to only 25 years in prison (later reduced to 20 years on a punishment retrial).  One has to wonder what the term of punishment would have been if a man had tied a woman to a bed and stabbed her that many times.

Weare has no qualms about addressing the perceived mental make-up of women as a factor in their success rate with insanity.

“A lot of it is based on gender stereotyping: The idea that women are inherently emotional and irrational,” Weare tells Quartz.  “Men are not meant to be emotional, they’re meant to keep everything hidden and be powerful and impenetrable.”

Mental illness is often incorrectly associated with weakness, says Weare, and as men are not expected to be weak, they’re less likely to be considered severely mentally ill. Meanwhile, creating more opportunities for women to use the insanity defense makes it easier to explain female acts of violence.

Perhaps this is true, but it also downplays just how difficult an insanity defense can be to prove to a judge or jury in the first place. It is human nature to want to hold someone responsible for criminally violent acts, and an insanity defense is often regarded with tremendous suspicion.  Even strong evidence of mental defect and illness is often not enough to persuade a jury to acquit for reasons of insanity, especially not if the crime is gruesome.  The fact that a woman has an advantage over a man in such a case is a grim indicator that jurors are deciding their verdicts based on their gut feelings, rather than their intellect.  That may work out well for a female defendant, but it doesn’t bode well for a male who is similarly situated.

Two years ago I represented a young man who was charged with inexplicably beating his girlfriend to death in a hotel room. My client had no motive to harm her, but he had an extremely lengthy history of severe mental health issues that extended back over a decade.  Despite his long history of hallucinations and his release from psychiatric treatment the day before the murder, the State’s psychiatrist ruled out legal insanity.  Unfortunately, it is an extremely common phenomenon in the criminal world to be told by a State’s psychiatric expert that a defendant is severely mentally ill, yet not mentally ill enough to be considered legally insane.

Despite having a defense expert who testified that my client’s case was one of the clearest cases of legal insanity he had ever dealt with, a jury ultimately sided with the State and its expert. My client was convicted.  It remains my firm opinion that the jury’s fear over the brutality of the crime overrode their intellect when they rejected my client’s insanity defense.  One has to wonder if the results would have been different if my client had been a woman.

[Swedish psychology professor Jenny] Yourstone tells Quartz that women who commit violent crimes are “not close to the legal or social norm” and so, instead of trying to accept that women are capable of terrible crimes, “it’s easier to make her psychiatrically sick or a victim of context.”

Unfortunately, men who kill or commit other acts of violence are much closer to the legal and social norm, which makes it stand to reason why an insanity defense is much more of an uphill battle for a male.

Despite the different studies and general findings of Yourstone and Weare, there is a surprising lack of statistics available on gender based insanity acquittals in the United States.  Goldhill notes:

. . . large-scale data has not been collated for several years. But a 1995 study on the factors associated with the rates of insanity acquittals in seven states found that, “in every state, the success rate for females was greater than that for males, and the difference was statistically significant in six states.”

In the conclusion of the article, Goldhill writes:

[The insanity defense is] successfully used in around .26% of criminal cases in the US, though symptoms of mania and psychotic disorders are far higher among the US prison population.  But as the gender discrepancy suggests, determining whether someone is legally insane is far from a clear-cut science.

Her conclusion is obviously a massive understatement. While the criminal justice system would like to claim that it is making greater strides toward understanding and accommodating mental illness, the fact that insanity is being rejected so uniformly illustrates that there is still a very long way to go.  The divide between the genders also indicates that jurors are operating more on gut gender assumptions than science.

As long as that remains the case, the criminal justice system cannot truly claim that it gives credence to the ideal that a legally insane person should not be held accountable for his or her actions. Well, at least not for his actions.

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  • Dick
    13 May 2016 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    It’s interesting that opponents of the insanity defense don’t the argument that it discriminates against men.