The Character of Freedom: Reviewing Lawrie Reznek, Evil or Ill? Justifying the Insanity Defense

20 Pages Posted: 18 Dec 1999 Last revised: 10 Jun 2013

See all articles by Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb

Cornell University - Law School

Date Written: 1999

Abstract

In Evil Or Ill? Justifying the Insanity Defense, Lawrie Reznek, a professor of psychiatry, attempts to explain and justify the insanity defense as a reflection of society's wish to punish only those individuals whose criminal acts demonstrate free will and an evil character. Accordingly, Reznek argues, criminal excuses, including insanity, ought to be most successful with a jury when they persuade the jury that the person charged is actually a good person and/or acted involuntarily.

The review essay contends that the character theory of blame is a provocative and even compelling one that helps explain legal phenomena (such as the predisposition component of entrapment prosecutions) that are otherwise largely elusive. The essay concludes, however, that the embrace of both a character theory and a robust theory of individual autonomy leads to a paradox: an abiding evil personal characteristic is both aggravating (because it results in crimes that manifest a bad character and are therefore inexcusable) and mitigating (because it reduces the subject's freedom to choose the good and thus may support "diminished capacity" excuses). In the end, the essay proposes a theory of blame in which it substitutes for autonomy a construct called "character detection conditions -- conditions under which a person with a "good character" will predictably do the right thing and a person with a "bad character" will predictably do the wrong thing -- as a prerequisite for blame. One would, on this approach, refrain from condemning or convicting an individual for committing a criminal act if the conditions surrounding her act negate any negative character inferences one might otherwise be inclined to draw.

Suggested Citation

Colb, Sherry F., The Character of Freedom: Reviewing Lawrie Reznek, Evil or Ill? Justifying the Insanity Defense (1999). 52 Stanford Law Review 235 (1999). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=200751

Sherry F. Colb (Contact Author)

Cornell University - Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

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