Constructing the 'Insane' Violent Offender Over Time

Myrna Dawson, University of Guelph

Only a small percentage of criminal defendants are found to be legally insane although many may suffer from some type of of mental disorder. Despite this, the use of what is commonly referred to as the insanity defence in cases of violent crime continues to generate debate. Little information exists, however, about whom the typical defendants are, the frequency of such verdicts, or the severity of punishments that result. This study examines the total population of homicide cases resolved through the courts in one urban Canadian jurisdiction from 1974-1996 to determine: 1) What proportion of defendants are found 'not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder'; 2) what types of homicides are most likely to result in this verdict; 3) Who are the typical defendants; and, finally 4) What changes, if any, have occurred over time in the legal construction of the 'insane' violent offender. An examination of the total sample of homicides will identify factors that distinguish between those found 'not criminally responsible' and those subject to other types of convictions. A sub-sample of cases, matched according to legal and extra-legal criteria, will be used to examine what contextual differences might exist between insanity cases and other types of killings.

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Updated 05/20/2006