5 Times An Insanity Plea Actually Worked

Above (clockwise): John Hinckley Jr., Lorena Bobbitt, Andrea Yates and Vincent Li
Above (clockwise): John Hinckley Jr., Lorena Bobbitt, Andrea Yates and Vincent Li

Welcome to True Crime Tuesday where we review, recommend and generally obsess over everything crime-related.

Mental illness is no joke. When left untreated, some people experience delusions and paranoia so severe that they become violent and do things that they would never do if they were thinking clearly. From things like schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder to postpartum depression, and people who snap after years of abuse, there are a number of situations where an insanity defence is a defendant’s best change of not spending the rest of his or her in prison.

Killers who attempted to justify their crimes with an insanity defence include serial murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, mass murderer James Holmes, and Lisa Montgomery, a woman who wanted a baby so badly that she killed a pregnant woman and cut her fetus out of her womb. Juries didn’t buy the insanity—temporary or otherwise—arguments in these cases. An insanity defence is rare, but there are situations where it’s the only one that makes sense. Here are five people who plead insanity—and won.

John Hinckley Jr.
The man who attempted to assassinate U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1981 would never have been described as mentally stable. In 1976, when he was 21, he saw the film Taxi Driver which stars Robert De Niro as a disturbed man who plots to assassinate a presidential candidate. Hinckley then became obsessed with Jodie Foster who appears in the movie as a child prostitute. He spent years trying to get her attention, even moving to New Haven and enrolling in a writing class at Yale where she was attending school. He eventually decided he would assassinate the president in an attempt to impress her.

After his attempt on President Reagan’s life, Hinckley was arrested immediately, but he ended up being found not guilty by reason of insanity. As a result of the verdict, the U.S. Congress and a number of states revised their laws regarding when an insanity defence may be used. Hinckley was sent to a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with a range of different mental disorders. He spent 35 years in the hospital and in 2016 he was declared no longer a danger to himself or others and released into his mother’s custody.

Lorena Bobbitt
Every guy’s worst nightmare turned into a reality for John Bobbitt on June 23, 1993 when his wife Lorena cut off his penis with a knife while he was sleeping. She then took the severed body part and drove away to throw it into a field. After she calmed down she realized the severity of what she had done and called 911 herself. John’s penis was located and miraculously reattached at the hospital, but it never regained full sensation.

Lorena was arrested and claimed that her husband was physically, sexually, and emotionally abusive towards her. She also said he was unfaithful and had forced her to have an abortion. Lorena’s defence was that the abuse she endured had caused her to develop post traumatic stress disorder and eventually she “snapped”.  John’s version of the events of that night changed multiple times, weakening his credibility, and the jury found Lorena not guilty due to insanity. She spent 45 days in a state hospital before being released back into the world.

Vincent Li
In one of the most shocking cases of random violence Canada has ever seen, 40-year-old Vincent Li was taking a Greyhound bus in Manitoba when he decided he had to kill the man seated beside him. 22-year-old Tim McLean was asleep with Li attacked him with a large knife he had in his bag, stabbing him multiple times and eventually decapitating him. The bus driver pulled over and the rest of the passengers fled the bus, leaving Li to continue to sever more of McLean’s body parts and even consume some of his flesh.

At his trial, Li plead not criminally responsible. In Canadian law, that means he admits that the murder occurred but he was unable to form the necessary mental element, or mens rea. A psychiatrist testified that Li attacked McLean because “God’s voice told him McLean was a force of evil and was about to execute him.” The judge accepted Li’s plea and he was committed to a psychiatric hospital. After nine years in a hospital, Li was granted absolute discharge and legally changed his name. He has been living independently since early 2017.

Andrea Yates
Many new mothers experience varying levels of postpartum depression that prevents them from bonding with their new babies and feeling the joy they expected to feel after giving birth. Most are able to work through their feelings with the help of their families and a good therapist, but others, like Andrea Yates, slip through the cracks. On June 20, 2001, Andrea drowned all five of her children who ranged from seven years to six months old. At the time was was under psychiatric care for postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis and her husband had been advised to keep her under observation at all times. She was only alone with her kids for one hour.

At trial, expert testimony asserted that Andrea was in the middle of a psychotic episode when she drowned her children. In Texas, the law requires that for an insanity defence to work, it has to be proven that the defendant couldn’t discern right from wrong at the time of the crime. The jury rejected her defence and found her guilty. On appeal, Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity and moved from prison to a mental hospital. It has since been revealed that Andrea never should have been released from the hospital days before she killed her children, and that she only had been because of the limitations of her insurance.

Steven Steinberg
In 1981, Steven Steinberg killed his wife by stabbing her 26 times. At first, he told police that she had been killed in a home invasion gone wrong, but the evidence pointed towards him as the killer. He admitted he did, in fact, kill her, but claimed he was asleep walking at the time and therefore couldn’t be considered “sane”. His lawyer even had a psychiatrist testify that the murder was a “dissociative reaction” and the jury should consider him “temporarily insane” when he killed his wife and therefore not criminally responsible.

The jury bought it and they found Steinberg not guilty. Since he wasn’t suffering from any long term mental illnesses, despite everyone knowing he did kill his wife, he was released a free man as soon as the verdict was read. Today, under Arizona law, the “temporary insanity” defence no longer exists in the same form. Now judges have to impose a “guilty but insane” sentence which means the person will have to serve a sentence in a mental institution even if they were technically not in the their right mind at the time of the murder.

Courtney Hardwick

Courtney Hardwick

Courtney Hardwick is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared on AmongMen.com, 29secrets.com, therichest.com, and ELLECanada.com.  When she isn’t writing about relationships, and the best TV shows and books you should really already know about, she is working on her novel. She hopes to have it published by 2025. You can follow her on Twitter @Courtooo.

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