Was Beverly Ann Pouncey insane when she murdered her 5-year-old son because she believed the devil was pursuing him and that the only way to save him from hell was to kill him? If she was insane, can she be found guilty of the murder? Yes, said the Maryland Court of Appeals, to both questions. In an opinion issued this week that reaffirms a position taken in a 1979 case, the court held that because she knew in fact that she was killing her child and she intended to do so she had the necessary mens rea to commit a crime even though she was insane at the time. The law in Maryland as well as nine other states thus differs from that in most jurisdictions, where such a person would have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Most legal scholars are not comfortable with the concept of finding an insane person guilty of a crime. The ABA Committee on Standards for Criminal Justice has prepared a draft of standards on the insanity defense that calls a guilty but insane verdict "unconstitutional on its face." Others believe that if a defendant actually committed the act charged and intended to commit it--as John Hinckley did when he shot the president, or as Mrs. Pouncey did when she drowned her child--he should be labeled guilty. If a mental illness or disorder existed at the time of the act, then the person should not be punished criminally but should be confined in a mental institution. The ABA committee will hold public hearings on its draft standards in this city in November. It is a subject of growing interest to the public, and the presentations should be lively.
The question of whether John Hinckley and Beverly Pouncey should bear the stigma of guilt is a moral one. The public is probably more concerned with the practical effect of a finding of insanity, whether it is accompanied by a finding of guilt, as in Mrs. Pouncey's case, or innocence, as it was for Mr. Hinckley. We are not troubled by the possibility that John Hinckley may someday vote or win a government contract, which Mrs. Pouncey cannot do. We are concerned that society be protected from the violent acts of such people and that the treatment they receive be given in secure settings and for a sufficient time. The debate on the best and fairest way to judge and care for such people--a debate that has accelerated since the Hinckley verdict-- continues in Congress and in every state.