Life of former President Reagan

A new trend of invoking syndromes in court as defenses has been noted. In general, there are numerous syndromes developed by lawyers and behavioral professionals but not all of them have been acceptable by the courts as to exculpate or mitigate criminal liability. The American Psychiatric Association has approved a number of disorders included in the DSM IV or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (Morse, 1995). “Examples of the diagnostically respectable disorders include: Antisocial Personality Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Kleptomania, and Pathological Gambling.

”  The other syndromes have not been given provisional recognition. The common issues raised in regard to the use of syndromes as defense are mainly on the confinement of “diagnostic identification, research, and advocacy” to the mental professionals’ domain (Morse, 1995). To a few, the discovery of new syndromes are nothing but finding new reasons for excuse to change criminal law. The use of syndromes of mental aberration seems to be exploited by the legal professionals in order to serve as a means to secure their clients’ freedom and non-liability.

There are two main grounds for the advocates of legal change, one is the validation of affirmative defenses such as "battered victim" or "urban survivor syndrome" defense and two, for the “expansion of old defenses: for example, loosening objective standards for justifications such as self-defense (Morse, 1995). In cases of the use of the defense of insanity for instance, the laws has narrowed the rules for the legal insanity tests (Hoffman and Morse, 2006). The basic criticism for the legal insanity tests is basically the fact that it is unscientific and obsolete.

Moreover, the legal insanity defense has been restricted due to the unpopularity of pronouncements by courts of not guilty by reason of insanity (Hoffman and Morse, 2006). For instance, the public sentiment is against exoneration due to legal insanity defense as in the case of John Hinckley Jr. who was not found guilty for an attempt against the life of former President Reagan. By reason of the public clamor and negative perception, the Legislature adopted a stricter policy on the insanity defense.

In some states, in fact, it was abrogated entirely. In defense against criticism of legal insanity defense not being based on scientific standards, it is opined that moral responsibility should not be gauged by science (Hoffman and Morse, 2006). With the surge of the use of syndromes as defenses, moral responsibility has been eroded. The development and discovery of the modes of explaining human behavior in “psychiatry, psychology, sociology and neuroscience” have created far new and heavy challenges in the sphere of criminal law.

These modes advocate the assumption that a person does an act beyond his control and not based on their intent but that which is due to compelling and powerful forces (Hoffman and Morse, 2006). As soon as one accepts exemptions due to mental condition disorders, it would be difficult to differentiate one from the rest of the group. If for instance, we exempt schizophrenia, this would necessarily exclude or include other disorders. If this is the case, what criteria or standard would one use to determine which should exculpate or which should not excuse a person from criminal liability (Hoffman and Morse, 2006).

The basic tenet should remain: that the criteria for criminal liability are “intentionality and moral capacity” The hallmark of being civilized is the capacity of the society to punish the criminals and wrongdoers who intentionally breach the law and are not mentally impaired by a mental or psychological condition. In the same breath, punishing those who cannot morally recognize that the acts they commit are criminal, is not being civilized. Assertions of non-responsibility should be treated with caution and scrutiny.

Tests or standards for excusing the accused from the crime he has committed on the ground of affliction with a serious mental malady should be subject to circumspection (Hoffman and Morse, 2006). Syndrome defense tests should be applied sensibly with a view of excusing those who are truly afflicted with a mental disorder and therefore no moral cognition of the crime, testimony from experts must be subjected to careful scrutiny so that the courts can decide appropriately the guilt and criminal responsibility (Hoffman and Morse, 2006).

Conclusion The legal system is exact and with fixed categories and elements for crimes. In defines criminal responsibility and culpability. It prescribes respective defenses that can be employed to excuse or mitigate criminal liability. However, with the development of syndromes and its use in court as defenses to mitigate criminal liability or altogether be exempt from it challenges arise insofar as clearly defining the parameters and standards of the syndrome to be accepted as valid by the courts.

Syndromes do not generally lend to definitive calculations of elements considering that the powerful stimuli that compels a person in committing a criminal act vary subjectively based on heterogeneous factors. Another challenge is bringing these new excuses within the purview of those existing and validly accepted criminal defenses and of modifying them to fit under those existing already. It does not require a total and massive modification of the criminal system but only “reasonable modifications to current doctrine in some cases.

”According to Stephen Morse, the syndromes do not raise new matters that would require a complete restructuring of criminal law, even if there are recent development in the scientific standards and issues. (Morse, 1998).


  • “defense,” West's Encyclopedia of American Law, 2nd Edition. Gale Group, Inc. , 2008. Hoffman, M. and. Morse, S. “The Insanity Defense Goes Back on Trial,” Opinions, New York Times, July 30, 2006. Retrieved on April 10, 2008, from