Under Arrest - T is for Temporary Insanity

Photo by Lexi Ruskell on Unsplash

Welcome back to A-Z. Today's letter t is for Temporary insanity

The notion of temporary insanity argues that a defendant was insane during the commission of a crime, but they later regained their sanity after the criminal act was carried out. This legal defense is commonly used to defend individuals that have committed crimes of passion.

Prior to 1981, the insanity defense was only used in 2 percent of the felony cases and in those cases failed over 75 percent of the time. 

What happened in 1981?

John Hinckley Jr developed an obsession with the movie Taxi Driver, in which Jodie Foster stars as a child prostitute and Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, who plots to assassinate the presidential candidate in the film. 

Hinckley personally watched the movie 15 times consecutively and grew infatuated with Jodie Foster. Hinckley then began to stalk the actress by relocating to New Haven, Connecticut, near Yale University where she was enrolled. He signed for a Yale writing class, slipped her poems and messages through her door and calling her persistently. 

Eventually he decided to attempt an assassination on President Ronald Reagan. As the president left the Hilton Hotel, he shot six times at Reagan, wounding a few other people in the process. One of the bullets hit the president in the chest, but he survived the attempt. 

Hinckley’s defense team pled for insanity defense and succeeded, he was acquitted of all of his 13 charges of assault, murder and weapon counts. 

Due to the high profile of the case, the public perceived the insanity defense as a loophole in the legal system which allowed a clearly guilty criminal to dodge incarceration. 

During the years following the Hinckley acquittal, Congress and half of the states enacted changes in the insanity defense by either

  • Limiting the substantive test of insanity
  • Shifting the burden of proof to the defendant
  • Supplementing the insanity verdict with a separate verdict of guilty but mentally ill (GBMI)
  • Abolishing the insanity defense altogether

After 35 years Hinckley was released from Saint Elizabeths mental hospital. He's required to take his meds to prevent psychosis and combat anxiety, to meet with a psychiatrist and a therapist and to carry a GPS-enabled mobile phone so his activities can be monitored.

Taking into consideration that nobody of the six people who were wounded in the assassination attempt, actually died, 35 years in the psychiatric hospital seems like he has paid his dues and is no threat to others anymore. 

What worries me though, and that may be the Swiss in me, is how did this guy Hinckley get a gun? And why weren't measures taken to deal with his stalking? The letters, the phone calls, all scream sicko? 

It is slightly off topic, and I know in this case nothing happened to Jodie Foster (even tough he did threaten to kill her and himself in the process), but it might very well have. Statistics say 50% of all domestic violence-related stalkers will carry out their threats. 

Do you think stalking / harassing is taken seriously enough? Should it be easy for everybody to purchase a weapon? Did Hinckley get off easy with his "sentence"?

Let me know in the comments below and please visit back tomorrow.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


  1. I never thought to Google what became of John Hinckley so this was an interesting subject to read. Like you I wonder if such a plea of insanity is a way to dodge the prison bullet so-to-speak. Luckily no one did die at his hands. I do believe attention needs to be paid when someone is feeling threatened instead of waiting to do something after the fact. That just drives me nuts to think about. Anywho, great post!

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  2. I think there are WAY too many guns around and it is too easy to get them. I don't think that stalking/harassing is taken seriously enough. Normal people don't do those things.

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  3. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Guns should not be that easy to get, but try telling that to the NRA. And they have money, so they buy off politicians, and in turn, those politicians are reluctant to legislate guns more harshly. Add in a population that has been fed so much paranoia and fear so that they perceive any attempt to legislate guns as a direct attack on themselves ("if you take my guns, then the criminals will kill me"), and you've got the mess we in the US find ourselves in. Sigh.

    (Don't get me started on this. I can go on for hours.)

  5. When I read about what Hinckey is up to, it scared me, especially the report that he scared a woman he was trying to approach romantically enough that she called the police (in all fairness, she had found out who he was). What happens when his mother (whom he lives with) passes on? Who will make sure he is taking his meds? I never realized that it was his case that really got the temporarily insane defense going.

  6. I think too many people use mental illness as their defence in Australia to get off or a much lighter penalty. I wonder if that case influenced the Aussie system or if there was something else?

  7. Temporary insanity is a slippery slope in my opinion for some it is a cope out a way to get off after committing a crime

  8. Great post! Isn't it interesting, in a world where cameras are everywhere and we are constantly monitored they can't tell when someone is being stalked or harassed? Arming people has never been the solution only another layer to the problem. I think the only weapon you need is evidence in the form of a video camera on your back! :)


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