United States v. Brawner

The Facts

Defendant convicted at trial of second degree murder and carrying a dangerous weapon, despite offering the plea of insanity.  The court specially requested a hearing en banc to determine the appropriate legal standard for the insanity defense.

The Issue

Whether the insanity defense can be applied to second degree murder and carrying a dangerous weapon.

The Holding

The traditional rule of most courts has been to permit any and all evidence of the defendant’s behavior so long as it relates to his mental condition.  The court previously adopted the “product rule” – which held criminals not liable for crimes that were a product of mental disease.  However, this standard “failed to explicate what abnormality of mind was an essential ingredient of these concepts.” This left open the door to institutions defining what a mental disease was, and thus left the courts subject to those sudden changes – medical terminology was determining legal outcomes.  Moreover, the expert should be testifying only to provide medical relevant knowledge, but the product rule resulted in medical doctors testifying about the causal nature (a legal term) of the disease.  The issue of causation is something that should be left to the jury and should not be a component of medical expert testimony.  As such, the ALI rule should be adopted.

The standard that “if mental disease impairs capacity to such an extent that the defendant cannot justly be held responsible” is flawed.  The concern is that an instruction that asks the jury to evaluate “justice” … “cannot feasibly be restricted to the ambit of what may properly be taken into account but will splash with unconfinable and malign consequences.”  In effect, it will result in lawyers appealing to extraneous issues to the jury that aren’t relevant to the issue of insanity.


The ALI standard was rejected in 1984 with the passage of the Insanity Reform Act.  “The defendant will be successful if there is a showing that he was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his act at the time of the crime.”  The burden to prove this is on the defendant, rather than on the prosecution to disprove.  Also, the act states that experts may not testify “as to the ultimate issue of the defendant’s insanity.”

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