The McNaughten Rule, established in the 19th century, has been a pivotal concept in forensic psychology, shaping the way the legal system evaluates an individual’s criminal responsibility based on their mental state at the time of the offense. This rule focuses on determining whether the accused, at the time of the crime, was suffering from a mental disorder that rendered them incapable of understanding the nature and quality of their actions.
Who was McNaughten ?
The McNaughten Rule originated from the case of Daniel McNaughten, who assassinated Edward Drummond, private secretary to British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in 1843. He was a Scottish woodturner.
In 1841, Mc Naughten traveled to London and France, during his stay he expressed feelings of persecution by the people. Upon returning to Glasgow, he acquired two pistols, claiming they were for shooting birds. Subsequently, in 1842, McNaughten spent weeks in London, observed around Westminster and Whitehall by Metropolitan Police Constable Silver. Described as a “seedy-looking person,” he was known to solicit conservative members at the Houses of Parliament.
On January 20, 1843, McNaughten targeted Drummond, along Whitehall, shooting him at close range near Horse Guards Parade, under the belief that he had assassinated the prime minister. Though initially appearing unharmed, Drummond’s injuries led to complications, and he succumbed to death after five days.
Despite having the opportunity to escape, McNaughten made no such attempt and was promptly arrested. His statement to the police provides a glimpse into his mental state during the incident.
McNaughten was found not guilty by reason of insanity, leading to the establishment of a legal standard for assessing criminal responsibility concerning mental health.
The Rule’s Criteria
According to the McNaughten Rule, a defendant can be found not criminally responsible if, at the time of the offense:
- They were suffering from a mental disorder.
- The disorder impaired their ability to understand the nature and quality of their actions or to distinguish right from wrong.
- John Hinckley Jr.: In 1981, Hinckley attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan. His defense invoked the McNaughten Rule, arguing that his obsession with actress Jodie Foster and his mental health issues made him unable to comprehend the wrongfulness of his actions. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
- Andrea Yates: In 2001, Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub. During her trial, forensic psychologists testified that she suffered from severe postpartum psychosis, meeting the criteria of the McNaughten Rule. Yates was initially convicted, but her verdict was later overturned, and she was committed to a mental health facility.
- John du Pont: In 1996, du Pont, an heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, killed Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. Du Pont’s defense argued that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, meeting the criteria of the McNaughten Rule. He was found guilty but mentally ill.
What and Where to watch ?
TV Series where you can watch cases pertaining to Psychology and Criminal trials.
- Mindhunter (Netflix Series): This series follows FBI agents studying and interviewing serial killers, providing insights into criminal psychology and the challenges of dealing with mentally disturbed offenders.
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent – “Crazy” (Season 1, Episode 10):
- This episode explores the impact of mental illness on criminal behavior and legal proceedings.
- Criminal Minds – “Elephant’s Memory” (Season 3, Episode 16):
- While not directly related to McNaughten’s rules, this episode delves into the psychological aspects of criminal behavior.
The McNaughten Rule remains a cornerstone in forensic psychology, providing a framework to assess an individual’s mental state concerning criminal responsibility. However, its application can be complex, as demonstrated by various high-profile cases. Understanding the interplay between mental health and criminal responsibility is crucial for a fair and just legal system.