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Should a Personality Disorder Qualify as a Mental Disease in Insanity Adjudication?


Richard J. Bonnie


University of Virginia - School of Law

September 1, 2010

Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, Vol. 38, 2010
Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2011-06

Abstract:     
The determinative issue in applying the insanity defense is whether the defendant experienced a legally relevant functional impairment at the time of the offense. Categorical exclusion of personality disorders from the definition of mental disease is clinically and morally arbitrary because it may lead to unfair conviction of a defendant with a personality disorder who actually experienced severe, legally relevant impairments at the time of the crime. There is no need to consider such a drastic approach in most states and in the federal courts, where the sole test of insanity is whether the defendant was - unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct at the time of the offense. This is because the only symptoms that are legally relevant in such jurisdictions are those that impair reality-testing and thereby affect the person’s capacity to understand the nature and consequences of her actions. However, if the test of insanity includes a - volitional prong‖ (inability to control one’s behavior), some way must be found to limit the scope of the defense to the core cases (involving psychotic conditions) to which it has traditionally been applied, and to prevent a shift toward a deterministic account of criminal conduct - i.e., "people can't help being who they are and doing what they do." The best way of accomplishing this is to limit the definition of mental disease to severe disorders characterized by gross disturbances of the person’s capacity to understand reality.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 7

Keywords: Insanity, criminal responsibility

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Date posted: February 22, 2011 ; Last revised: March 12, 2011

Suggested Citation

Bonnie, Richard J., Should a Personality Disorder Qualify as a Mental Disease in Insanity Adjudication? (September 1, 2010). Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, Vol. 38, 2010; Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2011-06. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1765927

Contact Information

Richard J. Bonnie (Contact Author)
University of Virginia - School of Law ( email )
580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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