John W. Hinckley Jr. has been found not guilty by reason of insanity. This after most of the nation saw him shoot the president and three others.
Predictably, the public is outraged, and predictably this rage is directed toward the jury and toward the psychiatrists who participated in the trial. Even the judge was irritated.
The responsibility for this unpopular verdict is not the jury's or the psychiatrists'. It belongs to the justice system in general, and the judge in particular. In the first week of the trial, he made a ruling that was to determine the outcome.
In order to make sense of this, it is essential to see exactly what happened. This involves understanding the roles of the judge, the jury and psychiatry, as wen as the nature of, insanity itself.
First, consider the problems of the judge. At the beginning of the trial, he was required to resolve a contradiction arising from the arbitrary nature of law itself. Hinckley's actions were subject to both federal and District of Columbia laws, but these laws contradicted each other in a crucial way:
If a defendant pleads insanity under federal rules, the presumption is that he is insane, and it is the task of the prosecution to prove otherwise. But under D.C. rules, the presumption is that the defendant is sane, and the burden of proof falls on the defense. Obviously, a trial cannot be run under both sets of rules.
The judge resolved this conflict by ruling that the federal rules would apply, thereby shifting the burden to the prosecution. This was the decision that determined the verdict. In order to see how, it is necessary to first put together other pieces of the puzzle.
In the trial itself, the task of the jury was not to establish either sanity or insanity. Instead, following the procedure of the adversary system, the jury's task was to decide whether the prosecution had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Hinckley was not insane. So, the jury was judging the prosecution's case, not Hinckley.
Now, what about the psychiatric testimony? Most people believe that the question of insanity ought to be relatively easy to establish. After all, isn't this the area of expertise of psychiatrists?
No, it isn't. Insanity is foreign to psychiatry.
Psychiatry, like all of medicine, is an empirical technology. The premise of empiricism is that the universe exists as it is, and the task of scientists and other empiricists is to discover facts about it.
By contrast, the law is a product of idealism. The premise of idealism is that there are ways the universe ought to be, and the task of the idealists is to invent ways of achieving that.
Insanity is an invention of idealists. It is not a discovery of empiricists. Hence, the idea of insanity is a creature of imagination, not of nature.
It is a unicorn, having any properties that people wish to give it. As a unicorn, it is not available to be studied by empiricists. So, as a myth, insanity is alien to psychiatric science.
Then, what did the psychiatric testimony about insanity mean? Nothing. The first job of the jury was to ignore it.
Unfortunately, though, this was not pointed out to the jury because, by consensus and by tradition, psychiatrists are part of the insanity circus. In fact, the spectacle of psychiatric testimony in cases such as this one serves only as a sideshow; clowns to entertain while the next act is being set up.
Think of this trial as a magic show.
The magician (the judge) is the one who makes things happen, but it is his goal to avoid detection while doing so. He accomplishes this by misdirection; that is, by guiding the attention of the audience (the jury and the public) to amusing patter (the psychiatrists).
While the audience's attention is engaged thus, he pulls the verdict from his sleeve, ingenuously attributing its appearance to magic. This show would be more entertaining, of course, if it were not such a serious social issue.
Now, consider the task of the jury in the Hinckley trial The judge, with his knowledge, wisdom and power, had declared that the defendant was insane, and by doing so challenged the prosecution to prove otherwise.
Since insanity is a mythical animal, this was equivalent to declaring that the unicorn is white, or that 100 angels can dance on the head of a pin, or that invisible fire-breathing dragons cause forest fires--and then challenging someone to prove otherwise.
Seen in this light, the task of the jury was simple. The prosecution had no chance.
Most of us believe that the insanity defense is socially destructive nonsense. But, what can be done about it? I have two suggestions, one relating to the role of psychiatrists and the other to the role of lawmakers.
First, it must be understood that psychiatrists are laypersons with respect to insanity. Any psychiatrist who claims psychiatric expertise on insanity is as deluded as any other layperson. By claiming expertise, in other words, he has disqualified himself as an expert.
This is analogous to the famous paradox, "All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan." On this ground alone, psychiatrists can be eliminated from insanity trials. When this is accomplished, the magician will have to work naked, without props.
Second, lawmakers must understand clearly that insanity is unrelated to psychiatry because idealism is distinct from empiricism. For this reason, the responsibility for the insanity issue is solely the law's; psychiatry cannot be forever scapegoated here.
Laws must be changed to abolish insanity, a myth that has long ago outlived its usefulness. The issue of guilt must be distinguished from motive; in fact, sick people do commit crimes because of their sickness.
Finally, the law must recognize that psychosis and other serious mental disorders are illnesses that are empirically discovered and therefore are within the expertise of psychiatrists. Psychiatrists can realistically have a hand in determining how a guilty person can be "punished."