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The Crazy Crook: a Study of Criminality and Insanity

In: Philosophy and Psychology

Submitted By hendascott
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The media directly influences society’s perceptions and reactions towards the insane criminal. People base their judgement of the criminal and the insane on their representations in the media, which are usually based on stereotypes. Whether insanity is a prerequisite quality for being a criminal or criminality is a manifestation of insanity, there is a definite link between the two, that has been strengthened by the media’s portrayal of the insane criminal.

Michel Foucault discusses people’s tendencies to classify people as “normal” or “abnormal” (Faubion 1994). “Abnormal” refers to anyone who deviates from the norm and as a result, we treat the criminal and the insane in a similar manner: We remove them from society in order to give ourselves peace of mind, yet this treatment is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, society has attempted to marginalise both the criminal and the insane. In Madness and Civilization: a History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1965) Foucault describes this classification as a means to exclude certain types of people from society, by placing them in prisons or institutions. They are taken out of the social order and locked away, to present a “safer” world for those who consider themselves “normal”. We classify the criminal and the insane as “abnormal” without truly understanding the underlying issues of criminality and insanity. This begs the question of what the criminal and the insane actually have in common?

Foucault states that criminals are defined in terms of three different discourses: medical, moral or religious and legal and treatment of the crime will be decided accordingly. He suggests that medical discourses define criminals in terms of being sick or healthy, whereas religious and moral discourses define them in terms of being good or evil. Legally, criminals are defined as anyone that poses a danger to other people’s lives or property. (O’ Shaughnessy 2007)

I believe these discourses can be applied to the notion of insanity as well.
To be medically insane, refers to a chemical imbalance that causes a person to react in a certain way. Even today there is a lot of stigma attached to mental disorders, as some believe madness can be controlled by the individual and other recognise the medical implications of mental disorders. People suffering from such illnesses, if not given the right treatment are often removed from society and placed in mental institutions where there actions can be monitored.

Moral or religious insanity refers to when people who do things that by another’s moral standards are deemed insane. In the 19th century and early in the 20th , when people had unknown illnesses, they were often believed to be “possessed”. One such case is re-enacted in the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2006). The film centres a round a court case which ensued after a girl, who had a known mental disorder (epilepsy). Her priest advised her to stop taking her medicine, ultimately resulting in her death. To decide whether someone is morally insane is still left up to each person’s moral values, although the media have very prejudiced views on what is considered abnormal moral behaviour.

The legally insane are people who are unfit to stand trial or were unable to comprehend their actions while committing a crime. Journalists tend to crucify those who are acquitted on the basis of insanity, which leads to public outrage, as the public wants to see someone paying for what they did. From watching movies and televsion series on this matter, one gets the feeling that a sure way to get acquitted from committing a crime is to be found legally insane. This however is not true and less than 1% of defendants who plea not guilty due to insanity are successful (Simon & Shackelford 1991). This plea is discussed extensively in the media influences the public’s perception of the legal and justice systems.

It is interesting to note that in an American study on court cases involving insanity, both psychiatrists and lawyers believed there is a strong link between criminality and insanity. When asked to define the correlation half the psychiatrists and a third of the lawyers believe that most or all people who commit serious crimes are mentally ill (Simon & Shackelford 1991).

Possibly one of the biggest debates around criminality and insanity is the inability to convict someone who is mentally ill. There are many cases where the accused in a crime is pleads “not guilty” because they are considered insane. One of the elements, which must be proved in order to establish criminal guilt, is mens rea, the willful intention to commit the crime (Snyman 2002).

In South African Law, defendants must be acquitted of a crime if it is found that there is an absence of mens rea or if they could not distinguish right from wrong at the time the crime was committed. Insanity is one of five defences excluding mens rea, the others being youth, automatism, intoxication and provocation. (Burchell&Hunt:1983) The term ‘insanity” although not scientific, is used in legal proceedings to denote the state of someone who suffers from a mental abnormality that is not specified.

Criminality automatically leads to condemnation from society, yet we often sympathise with the insane, as we believe that they are not responsible for their actions. Only when a criminal activity is combined with insanity, there is an outcry, demand that the perpetrator “pays” for his or her crimes. Many people believe that criminality is a manifestation of insanity. This stereotype is perpetuated in the media by the way in which criminals are represented. Criminals are considered to be a danger to society.

Whether someone is found guilty of a crime, or found not guilty by reason of insanity, one faces the question of a suitable treatment for them. Is it moral to put someone with a mental illness in prison, as they face the possibility of being victimised by other inmates? If one looks at the behaviour patterns that surface in prison, it becomes clear that prison is not a suitable place of rehabilitation. One then has to consider getting the needed psychiatric help for the person involved, yet in the same way this person, if committed to a mental institution might negatively influence other patients.

Foucault link the possible treatments to the discourses previously discussed and broadly divides them into 3 categories: rehabilitation, punishment and restriction
(Faubion 1994). Rehabilitation takes on the form of “curing” someone of their illness in order for them to fit back into society. Rehabilitation can also refer to addressing someone’s criminal tendencies in order for them to lead a life without crime. Punishment relates to the fact that people should be liable for whatever deed they committed and should pay for it accordingly. Restriction is employed to prevent the person from doing whatever they did again, relying on preventative measures to ensure public safety. Examples of this would be to lock someone away or in some cultures to cut off someone’s hands, so they can’t steal again.

Whenever a serious crime is committed, the media paints the accused as someone who needs to be punished. This encourages the public to take action in the form of protest marches, which in turn is covered by the media to add fuel to the flame. This happened in South Africa in 2007, when Sheldean Human, a six-year-old girl was raped and murdered. The public demanded that the accused, Andrew Jordaan, who had a very low IQ be prosecuted immediately. When the story is first covered, the newspapers portrayed Jordaan as a sick psychopath that needs to be removed from society and put in jail. However in most of these cases, when the defence pleads insanity, the papers claim this is just a way to avoid prosecution.

In real life, the media constantly portray criminals as evil, dark people with no moral code. They are represented as threats to society and the public is keen to see them put behind bars as soon as possible. Journalists tend to crucify those who are acquitted on the basis of insanity, which leads to public outrage as the public wants to see someone paying for what they did.
In fiction, one tends to easily forgive criminal characters if they are not entirely sane. The media actually romanticises these characters as products of their environment that they even become likeable at some point. In films and books insanity is used to create empathy for criminals. They glamourise the insane criminal in movies like Natural Born Killers where the lead characters, Mickey and Mallory are clearly insane. By showing their circumstances growing up and creating a hero in Mickey, who “rescues” Mallory from her abusive father, the viewer is able to empathise with the character and look past their violent crimes to see them as people. They go on to commit horrible violent acts, yet the viewer sympathises with her because one has insight into why she became the way she is.

It is impossible to define where insanity begins and criminality ends and ultimately every individual’s perception of the insane criminal will differ according to their own beliefs. However as we base our decisions on what we see and hear and as most of our information comes from the media, they will continue to influence our views on criminality, insanity and the crazy crook. Bibliography

Bernstein, Douglas A & Stec, Astrid M (1999) Psychology: Fields of Application. USA: Houghton Mifflin Company

Burchell, EM & Burchell, JM & Milton, JRL (1983) South African Criminal Law and Procedure. Cape Town: Juta & Co, Ltd

Eco, Umberto (2007) On Ugliness. London: Harvill Secker

Gilman, Sander L ((1985) Difference and Pathology, Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness. Ithaca: Cornell University Press

O’Shauhnessy, M & Stadler, J (2007) Media and Society, an Introduction. Hong Kong: Sheck Wah Tong Printing Press Ltd.

Snyman, CR (2002) Criminal Law. Durban: Butterworths

Journal Articles
Simon, RJ and Shackelford, W (2001) The defense of insanity: a survey of legal and psychiatric opinion. Public Opinion Quarterly; Fall65, Vol. 29 Issue 3, p411

Weiss, D (2008) What would you do: the journalism that tweaks reality, then reports what happens? Columbia Journalism Review; Jan/Feb2008, Vol. 46 Issue 5, p41-44,

Stone, O (1994) Natural Born Killers. Colossal Pictures
(2006) The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

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