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Insanity defense, Insanity plea, Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, NGRI, John Hinckley Jr.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Law and Psychology | Law and Society | Litigation


The 1982 Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) verdict in the trial of John Hinckley, Jr., would-be assassin of President Reagan, again has brought to the forefront long-standing public dissatisfaction in the United States with the insanity plea. In the wake of the Hinckley verdict, proposals for reform or abolition of the insanity defense have been submitted to both houses of the U.S. Congress and to state legislatures throughout the nation (Cunningham, 1983). Fueling this reform movement is apparent public dissatisfaction with the insanity plea as it is currently defined.

In contrast to voluminous literature concerning legal and psychiatric perspectives on the insanity plea, very little has been written on the public’s perception of the defense. This is the case in spite of the public’s apparent role as impetus for recent legal changes. It is important to consider the public’s views because such views may affect the legitimacy of the defense as well as verdicts in specific insanity cases.

As part of a larger study on reactions to the Hinckley trial (Hans & Slater, 1983), we asked a random sample of Delaware residents what they thought was the test of legal insanity. Only 1 of our 434 respondents gave a reasonably good approximation of the Model Penal Code definition of legal insanity which was used in the Hinckley trial and was employed in Delaware at the time of that trial. The obvious divergence of lay views of legal insanity from the actual legal definition in our sample directed us to explore the substance of lay perceptions. The purpose of the present paper is to report in detail the full range of our sample’s definitions of legal insanity and to examine demographic correlates of those definitions.

Publication Citation

Published in: International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, vol. 7, no. 2 (1984).