Wild Beasts and Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present.


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Robinson, Daniel N. Wild Beasts and Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. vi+209 pp. $29.95.The modern history of the insanity defense generally begins with accounts of the unfortunate Daniel McNaughtan. Persecuted by delusional fears of the 1843 Tory government in England, McNaughtan shot and killed Robert Peel's private secretary, mistaking him for the prime minister. Having acquitted McNaughtan on the grounds of insanity, the jury raised the ire of Queen Victoria and the House of Lords who called the presiding justices on the carpet to justify their jury instructions and to clarify the law on exculpatory insanity. The judges' explanation that to be found blameless a criminal must not know what he was doing was wrong or must be "laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act" (p. 173), set the stage for the development of juridical standards in British and American law.Yet the evolution of the concepts assigning blame to criminals has roots in Greek and Roman law, reapplied in the Roman and Byzantine Empires and traced in fits and starts through the Inquisitions, the Renaissance, and the scientific and political revolutions to the present day. Robinson traces the intellectual and historical steps of the insanity defense as it takes its current imperfect and oft-misunderstood form. Bringing together scholarship and analysis from a wide range of historical and legal sources, Robinson takes a thorny modern legal construct and presents its often idiosyncratic precursors in an accessible style that reads almost like a novel.From the ancient Greeks' recognition of the need for social equity among citizens with individual autonomy, to the "ecclesiastical rationale for prosecutions" (p. 83) in the Middle Ages, readers gain a view of the procedures and justifications used across time to judge criminals. As politics and religion give way to empiricism and the scientific method, expert witnesses gain entry to a system still mystified by the workings of the criminal mind. Robinson's careful explication of British and American case-law and their logical predicates culminates in a warning against the overreaching of modern-day experts. These are the experts who attempt to answer the causal questions linking state of mind to behavior-questions that have eluded analysts for centuries. Indeed, Robinson's argument is well known to psychiatry, and forensics in particular, where the difference between an irresistible impulse and an impulse not resisted remains clouded.However, the contention that psychological or medical expertise does nothing more than dress up unknowable questions in "quasi-scientific" trappings does not do justice to current social institutions. Good judges and good forensic experts do in fact recognize the limits of medical expertise, leaving ultimate legal and social questions to the appropriate decision-makers: the jury or the bench. To leave the process to the "folk-psychology" of common experiences as the author suggests, denies a variety of useful diagnostic and clinical data that, although not necessarily exculpatory, enrich one's understanding of human behavior.If one disagrees with the work's conclusions, it is hard to fault its foundations. Historical and legal themes are clearly identified for readers without an extensive specialty backround.

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