Criminal defense attorney William R. Moore

Insanity Defense Still Viable?

Broward County residents are familiar with the insanity defense from watching movies and observing famous cases in the news. Often cited but not well understood, it has become a fixture in popular culture in south Florida and elsewhere. Broward criminal attorney William Moore believes the most famous insanity defense in living memory was that of John Hinckley, the man who shot Ronald Reagan in a failed assassination attempt. Hinckley watched the film Taxi Driver over and over, developing a fascination with child actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley became consumed with his obsession, moving to Connecticut to follow Foster when she enrolled in college, stalking her around New Haven. Foster did not return his interest, so Hinckley devised other plans to impress her, like killing himself in her midst.

Eventually, Hinckley came to believe that the most effective way to get Foster’s attention would be to kill someone who he believed to be her equal – like a president. Failing to get near Jimmy Carter during his tenure, he plotted to shoot President Reagan, eventually firing six shots. Hinckley wounded three others in addition to Reagan, who was hit in the chest by a ricocheting bullet.

Hinckley’s trial was closely followed in Fort Lauderdale (where the weapon was originally assembled), Fort Lauderdale, and throughout south Florida. The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity, and although he has remained institutionalized since 1982, there was widespread public outrage at the verdict. The insanity defense fell out of favor in the entire country. Broward criminal defense lawyer William Moore believes that the ramifications for the truly mentally ill are unfortunate, as punishment is often favored over treatment.
A number of states revised their insanity defense laws in the aftermath of the Hinckley trial. Florida’s insanity defense law allows defendants to acknowledge that they committed the act for which they have been charged, but argue that they should not be found guilty because they have a mental illness or defect. The defendant’s mental state must have been so severe as to prevent him from knowing what he was doing or the consequences of his crime when he committed the crime. Alternatively, the defendant may have understood what he was doing and the consequences of his actions, but can still invoke the insanity defense if he did not understand that his actions were wrong. The Florida legal insanity defense is the M’Naghten rule, named after a famous English case in the 1840s in which a severely mentally ill man attempted to assassinate the Prime Minister (and mistakenly killed the Prime Minister’s secretary, who M’Naghten believed to be the Prime Minister himself). A slim majority of the states have retained some version of the M’Naghten Rule and four states have eliminated the defense completely. A defendant who is successful in invoking the insanity defense will usually find himself confined to a mental hospital for a long period after the fact.
Recently, a Fort Lauderdale-Dade jury returned a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. After the Hinckley case, the defense fell out of fashion in the Fort Lauderdale-Fort Lauderdale-Broward metropolitan area. The success of the defense was likely a shock to every Broward criminal lawyer. Johnnie Horne shot his parents and sister repeatedly in 1996; only his sister survived. Horne’s trial was put off for more than ten years because he was not competent to stand trial. The jury seemed to take into account some of Horne’s odd behaviors during the Fort Lauderdale trial, such as crying for no reason and making strange faces. Still, national trends show that jurors are very skeptical of the insanity defense, making Horne’s case a likely anomaly.


Fort Lauderdale criminal lawyer William Moore has experience in a wide range of criminal defense situations. An arrest can damage all aspects of your life, including your employment prospects and custody and visitation of your children. If you have been charged with a crime in Florida, contact William Moore, P.A., which is an experienced Fort Lauderdale criminal law firm with offices in Fort Lauderdale-Dade, Broward, and Fort Lauderdale Counties.
This article should be used for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice, nor as implied representation of any person.
Article contributed by Mallory Shipman, Attorney-at-Law.