Psychosis, Heat of Passion, and Diminished Responsibility
63 B.C. L. Rev. 1227 (2022)
University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper No. 22-21
69 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2021 Last revised: 29 Aug 2022
Date Written: September 14, 2021
This Article calls for the creation of a generic partial excuse for diminished rationality from mental disability. Currently, most jurisdictions recognize only one partial excuse: the common law heat-of-passion defense. Empirical research demonstrates that populations with delusions experience similar impairments to decision-making capacities as people confronted with sudden, objectively adequate provocation. Yet, current law affords significant mitigation only to the latter group, which only applies in murder cases. Adoption of the Model Penal Code’s extreme mental or emotional disturbance (EMED) defense could extend mitigation to other forms of diminished responsibility. However, examination of jurisdictions’ adoption and utilization of the EMED defense shows that, of the few states that have adopted it, most have rejected its diminished responsibility potential. Instead, most retain key features of heat of passion such as requiring an external provoking event, rendering the defense inapplicable to many delusion-driven crimes.
A better solution would be to create a generic partial excuse for diminished rationality from mental pathology. Over the decades, several prominent scholars have offered proposals for generic partial excuses for partial responsibility, but, as of yet, none has inspired legislative action. This Article’s proposal differs from prior proposals in three key respects. First, this proposal is informed by contemporary understandings of the cognitive and emotional impairments to reasoning that often accompany psychotic disorders—the disorders often at issue in irresponsibility cases. Second and relatedly, this proposal is limited to rationality impairments stemming from mental disabilities, a traditionally recognized form of diminished blameworthiness. Third, to be workable and attractive to states, this proposal recommends that states draw definitions of partial responsibility from existing statutory frameworks, namely existing insanity or Guilty But Mentally Ill (GBMI) standards. Such an understanding of partial responsibility should carry greater local legitimacy, and the popularity of GBMI verdicts with legislatures and juries may mean that extending those statutes into the realm of partial responsibility would be more palatable to state legislatures than wholly new language. Because GBMI statutes typically do not reduce punishment or otherwise reflect diminished blameworthiness, those statutes yield few examples of sentencing, treatment, and post-sentence options to accompany a partial responsibility verdict. Statutes outside the U.S. may provide better models on that score, an issue that will be considered in a forthcoming work.
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