The New Insanity Defense

By: Margaret Sivit

In the early morning hours of August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman sat at his typewriter and began to compose his suicide note: “I don't really understand myself these days,” he wrote, “lately (I can't recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

Just a few hours earlier, the 25-year-old had taken a kitchen knife and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep. The note continued with chilling detail: “It was after much thought,” Whitman continued typing, “that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight, although I cannot pinpoint any rational reason for doing this.”

Whitman, however, was just getting started. Later that morning, Whitman packed a trunk full of guns and ammunition and made his way to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower. From there he began firing at the observation deck below, killing thirteen people – including a pregnant woman – and, ultimately, shooting himself.

What at first seemed to be a senseless crime was proven otherwise during Whitman's autopsy. In his suicide note, Whitman requested an autopsy be performed on his brain. Although what he felt was “overwhelming”, these violent impulses didn't quite feel natural. Shockingly, he was right. Whitman's autopsy revealed a tumor wedged between three regions of his frontal lobe – the thalamus, the hypothalamus and the amygdala – the latter of which is involved with the control of fear and aggression. If the tumor had been removed while Whitman was still alive, it is very likely that his violent impulses would have disappeared.

Dr. Russell Swerlow, a neurologist who removed a brain tumor in a similar case of tumor-caused criminal behavior, reflected, “The most interesting part of this is getting into the hardwiring of morality and free will. It raises the question, how free is free will?”

In most states, the insanity defense is the main legal criterion for delineating what is free will. The insanity defense is rooted in the belief that rational judgment is the most universal human property. Without rational judgment, the person's “true” self is somehow not even present in their own body, and individuals, therefore, cannot be held accountable for certain actions. To qualify, the defendant has to prove that he or she cannot recognizethe distinction between right and wrong. In other words, they must be incapable of reason.

In the case of Charles Whitman and others like him, the tumor, however, does not impair one's ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Such tumors only makes it much more difficult – perhaps impossible – to resist the urge to behave immorally and unlawfully. It is on this point that the law fails to draw a clear line between guilt and innocence in cases of brain dysfunction, because, according to Richard Bonnie of the University of Virginia School of Law, there is “… no objective basis for distinguishing between... the impulse that was irresistible and the impulse not resisted.”

While it seems wildly unjust to punish someone for having cancer, or any other affliction that is entirely outside of his or her control, Whitman's actions cannot be rightly called involuntary manslaughter, because he was certainly intending to commit murder. The traditional insanity defense does not encompass the “irresistible impulse” crimes of individuals with brain tumors or brain disorders. As we continue to learn more about the correlation between brain structure and human behavior, it will become increasingly necessary to provide a criterion beyond mere recognition of right and wrong – to delineate the qualities of free well, the self, and the parameters of legal responsibility.

Margaret Sivit is a second year in the College.