11. Lecture on ‘Putting the Insanity Defence on Trial’ by Dr. Eugenia Lancelotta

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11. Lecture on ‘Putting the Insanity Defence on Trial’ by Dr. Eugenia Lancelotta

Date Published: 30 June 2023

‘Putting the Insanity Defence on Trial’ a lecture for the Extreme Beliefs and Responsibility workshop at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. https://extremebeliefs.com/event/work…

Eugenia Lancellotta is a postdoctoral researcher working on the Euregio-funded Resilient Beliefs (REBE) project, based at the Centre for Religious Studies of Fondazione Bruno Kessler (Trento, Italy). She has a long-standing interest in delusional beliefs. During her PhD in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham (UK), she explored whether delusions are adaptive. In her postdoctoral research, she focuses on the (dis)similarities between delusions and other forms of resilient beliefs, such as religious ones.

The Insanity Defense is a tool that most Western legal systems employ to account for mental illness as a mitigating condition in assessing culpability. In most of these countries, the Insanity Defense has two major prongs. The first is that a defendant must suffer from a “severe mental disease or defect that affected him or her at the time of the crime”. The second prong is that “a defendant, as a result of this severe mental defect, must have been unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions at the time of the crime”. Wrongfulness must be interpreted with reference to “objective societal or public standards of moral wrongfulness, not the defendant’s subjective personal standards of moral wrongfulness”.

However, the application of the Insanity Defense is particularly problematic when it comes to crimes committed as a consequence of holding extreme religious beliefs. This is because the line between normal and pathological is more blurred in religious beliefs. Whereas in general pathological beliefs such as delusions stand out because they depart from shared norms of rationality and evidence, irrationality and resistance to counterevidence characterize both normal and pathological religious beliefs. Moreover, while pathological, irrational beliefs like delusions are usually not shared by a community of people, a religious belief that is odd for one group could easily be the norm in another. These factors make the task of understanding whether an extreme religious belief is the result of a mental illness or of a non-pathological – though dangerous – process of acquisition extremely daunting.

Some solutions have been proposed to overcome this conundrum and make the Insanity Defense applicable also in the presence of extreme religious beliefs. For example, some have argued that, while non-pathological, extremist religious believers would be able to engage with public standards of moral wrongfulness (though this would not change their end belief), this would not be the case for extremist religious believers affected by mental disorders such as psychosis.
After discussing this and other solutions more in detail, this paper aims to contribute to a fairer understanding and application of the Insanity Defense in cases of extreme religious beliefs and behaviours by envisaging an excusing condition for such beliefs and behaviours so far neglected by Western legal systems. I argue that the Insanity Defense must be fine-tuned to allow for criminal cases where appreciation of moral wrongfulness according to public standards is present, but the extremist religious beliefs and behaviours are the result of an identity disturbance due to prolonged and intense coercive persuasion as found in some sects, cults or other edxtremist religious organization. To do this, I will rely on the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – that makes room for dissociative disorders brought about by coercive persuasion – and apply it to the legal case of Nebraska vs Michael Ryan, where the culpability of some of the defendants could be overturned if considered under this new light.