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Claiming Insanity: Why Cult Member’s Should Not Be Offered an Insanity Plea
In 1978 over nine hundred members of a cult known as “The People’s Temple,” committed mass suicide under cult member—more importantly their leader—Jim Jones’ guidance (History, 1). Polygamy, child brides, human and animal sacrifices, as well as mass suicides are all terms at which the average person cringes at. Although they may not fit our prototypes, alternative religions for people to follow have always existed throughout the centuries. The average person refers to these as cults. According to Webster, a cult is “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.” Journalist Lisa Ling, host of “Our America,” and her producers sat down with Dr. Charles Strozier, a psychoanalyst and professor at The City University of New York. Dr. Strozier who has been studying new religious movements and cults for over two decades described a cult as, “a malevolent group usually with a charismatic, paranoid leader; that is completely absorbed in its own practices and functions that has the potential to become malevolent and corrosive, in the way it treats those within the group” (Huffington). Cult behavior tends to be more intense than the behavior of an average person who follows a more mainstream accepted religion and they are described by Dr. Strozier as a group who wishes to do harm and evil to others.
Cult behavior may not only be strange and extreme, but members may also partake in illegal activities. Child abuse, rape and murders are three illegal activities not scarce in the cult realm. Cult members, therefore, are not strangers to the court room. The line between faith and mental illness is thin, however, and many cult members who are in favor of avoiding a potential life to death penalty shoot for an insanity plea. Since cult members do not in fact show any signs of mental illness, the insanity plea in the court room, should not be considered.
To someone who is not mentally insane, and has indeed committed the crimes he/she is on trial for, admittance into a mental institute, rather than a prison sentence of life in jail, or the death penalty, sounds like an easy way out. In the eyes of The People’s Law Dictionary, insanity is a, “mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.” Insanity is a legal, not medical or psychiatric term. Someone who is legally insane suffers from a mental illness that distorts their perception between reality and fantasy. Dr. David A. Houston, a psychology professor, former lawyer and the instructor of a Legal and Forensic Psychology class at The University of Memphis, states that if a crime was carried out in a thoughtful, secretive manner, the defendant cannot be mentally insane (Houston). Research proves that cult members usually do not have mental illnesses, and therefore, are aware of the crimes they are committing. In relation to Dr. Houston’s statement, most cults keep to themselves and live in secrecy. This may be because they are aware of the legal punishments for their actions. In the courtroom, the insanity defense has been around for centuries, dating back to the ancient Romans (Kaustubh G. Joshi, MD, 1). The insanity plea, as defined in The Longman Dictionary of Psychology and Psychiatry, is “The criminal law defense plea that an individual lacks criminal responsibility by reason of insanity” (Houston, 1). The insanity plea claims that the defendant on trial should not be blamed for their criminal acts, because of their mental difficulties.
Cult members may partake in multiple crimes that could eventually lead them to a court room. The same malevolent behavior Dr. Strozier mentioned would do just so. Past cases have proven that members of cults who commit crimes, specifically murder, attempt to plea insanity. Ria Ramkissoon, a 22 year old mother and cult member who starved her child to death after he refused to say “Amen,” at the dinner table is a perfect example of this. Ramkissoon believed her one year old son would be resurrected after his death, but understood what she had done was considered wrong. In fact, she made a deal with the judge that if her son was resurrected, her guilty plea would be withdrawn. According to a CBS news article, “A court psychiatrist found that she was both competent to stand trial and could have been held criminally responsible for Javon's death because she knew the difference between right and wrong” (CBS). It was clear in this case that the defendant, Ria Ramkissoon knew her actions were wrong, therefore, the insanity plea was not acceptable. Joseph D. Salande M.S and David. R. Perkins Ph.D state in An Object Relations Approach to Cult Membership, that most individuals who are involved in cults do not usually “manifest symptoms of mental illness” (Salande, Perkins, 1). Since cult members do not in fact show any signs of mental illness, the insanity plea in the court room, should not be considered.
In order to entirely consider the argument, that cult members on trial should not be able to plea insanity, the history of this situation must be explored. The insanity plea claims that the defendant is mentally ill and the concept of mental illness has existed for centuries. According to a PBS “Treatments for Mental Illness Timeline,” in 400 B.C the idea that demonic possessions caused such mental illnesses had been rejected and Greek physician, Hippocrates, began to treat disorders as actual diseases. In Medieval Europe the mentally ill were granted their freedom as long as they were not dangerous. Muslim Arabs specifically, established asylums as early as the 8th century and establishments in the United States for the mentally ill, began to develop in the 1840s as a movement to separate those with disorders from criminals (PBS). The history behind the simple concept of mental illness has greatly developed over time, from believing that disorders were the result of demonic possessions and the displeasure of gods, to the actual development of psychiatric facilities to house and treat the mentally ill.
The insanity plea itself, also developed over time. In fact, it has been around for centuries as well. As specified in, Shared Psychotic Disorder and Criminal Responsibilty: A Review and Case Report of Folie a Trois, “In Ancient Rome, legal codes distinguished between those who were insane and those who were sane” (Kaustubh). These legal codes determined whether or not an individual could be held accountable for their wrong doings. As stated on Cornell Law’s webpage, “In the 18th century, the legal standards for the insanity defense were varied. Some courts looked to whether the defendant could distinguish between good and evil, while others asked whether the defendant "did not know what he did" (Cornell). By the 19th century, it was generally accepted that insanity was a question of fact, which was left to the jury to decide.” From the 18th to 19th century alone, the idea that the question of insanity should be decided by a jury, developed.
Tests had to be developed in order to divide defendants up into the legally insane, and sane, for the courtroom. The first legal test for insanity came along in 1843, and is known as The McNaughton Rule (Houston). The McNaughton rule is named after the case of Daniel McNaughton who shot and killed the British Prime Minister’s secretary in an attempt to murder the prime minister himself. McNaughton believed that the prime minister was conspiring against him and the court ruled for him to be acquitted by “reasons of insanity.” He spent his life in a mental institution although people protested, urging Queen Victoria to order the court to develop a stricter test for insanity (Cornell Law). The rule that was developed, and used in British and U.S courts today, is the McNaughton Rule. The McNaughton rule questions whether or not the defendant understands that their actions were wrong. If a defendant does not understand, they are legally insane (Houston). Since the development in the McNaughton Rule, not much has been done to progress how we determine whether a defendant is legally insane or not.
Cult members on trial usually strive for an insanity plea. Cults have existed for centuries and violent cults are not shy in today’s society. Charles Manson’s cult of 1967 fits the mold of a violent cult. “The Family,” as he referred to them, were notorious for their California murders (10 of the most, 1). In 1978 over 900 members of a cult known as “The People’s Temple,” committed mass suicide under a cult member—more importantly their leader—Jim Jones’ guidance (History, 1). More recent, members of the Aum Shinrikyo (“Supreme Truth”) cult, released a poisonous nerve gas on five crowded subway trains during morning rush hour in Tokyo. This attack in 1995 killed 13 people and left thousands sick (History, 1). In addition, an African cult has most recently been in today’s news. As of February 2014, this cult of majority young teenagers has been known to rape, steal and attack innocent members of the community (Niyi-Eke, 1). In all these cases, when questioning the reasoning for these violent acts, mental illness does arise as a possibility. The Ria Ramkissoon case, discussed previously, is a perfect example of this. What is evident in the Ramkisson case, is that mental illness did not play a role in the defendant’s intent, however.
Cult members should not be offered an insanity plea bargain in court. Most cult members do not show signs of mental illness, and are therefore aware of the wrongfulness of their actions. Cult members that are aware of these actions, however, may still attempt to plea insanity in order to avoid potential life or death sentences. Hospitalization may seem like an easy alternative to jail in these cases. According to Michael Schwirtz from the New York Times, violence in prisons such as Rikers Island, have caused the force used by correction officers to jump nearly 240 percent. He also states, “Current and former inmates described arbitrary and wanton abuse by other inmates and correction officers” (Schwirtz, 1). An increase of violence and corruption in today’s prisons are not appealing to those who are facing sentencing.
Individuals who join cults are not mentally ill. Salande and Perkins state, “It has been observed that those who join cults do not appear to suffer signi?cantly higher instances of psychological illness before entering the cult environment than the general population.” Since individuals involved in cults usually do not show signs of mental illness, they become involved for other, specific reasons. Based off of information from Robin Jackson, people join cults for reasons such as intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual. Jackson states that when people question the reason for their existence and the meaning of life, “Cults prey on this ignorance and try to impress the uninformed with pseudo-scholarship” (Jackson). He also states that people have desires to be in groups, and cults provide that. In addition, when people are experiencing hardships such as a death in the family, cult members see this as an opportunity to prey on the weak and have them join. Finally, Jackson states, “Some feel that mainstream religion is failing them and therefore they become easy prey for the cults.” In a world that may seem that so much is going wrong, people are searching for other spiritual fixes, and cults are waiting. The reasons individuals join cults, according to Jackson’s list, have nothing to do with mental instability.
The question still remains, if it isn’t because of mental illness, why do cult members act out in ways the outside world considers rash, violent and irrational? As described in An Object Relations Approach to Cult Membership, cult members usually see themselves and their group as enlightened and informed. Cult members believe they understand “the true nature of things,” and that they are better than the population themselves. According to Salande and Perkins, “they may manifest this as an arrogant dismissal of more mainstream ways of thinking and acting, or express a form of antagonistic de?ance in the face of what the members perceive as external aggression” (Salande). Expressing a form of defiance, includes violence. An Object Relations Approach to Cult Membership calls this defensive operation “projective identification” and explains that the reason cult members act out in violent ways, is because they believe non-believers will act hostile towards them and therefore, enforce the expected response towards them.
Joshi and Frierson explore in Shared Psychotic Disorder and Criminal Responsibility: A Review and Case Report of Fole à Trois the idea of cult members sharing psychotic disorders as a result of exposure. In this case, claiming insanity should be option for cult members on trial. In the article, Joshi and Frierson claim that a dominant person or leader can impose, “his or her delusions on a younger, more submissive person,” therefore, causing the cult member to experience delusions themselves (Joshi). The article describes a case of three sisters, of which one suffered from delusions and recruited her own sisters to create a cult-like group. The sister’s broke into a local house that the lead sister believed was her own, passed on from god. All sisters showed signs of mental illness, specifically delusions, when taken into jail. However, what Joshi and Frierson do explain, is that both sisters’ delusions faded and stopped occurring once separated from their leader sister. Clearly, the two member sisters were not mentally ill. In addition, making the distinction between a delusion and a cultural or religious belief is a difficult one (Joshi, 3). An individual who believes in something that is uncommon, does not mean they are mentally ill. Also, if the sisters in Joshi and Frierson’s example lost all delusions once separated, it is evident that they were not mentally ill, but simply believing what their leader, their sister, was preaching. In this case, they should not have been able to plea insanity because after separation from their sister, they showed no signs of mental illness and the belief that their sister spoke to god, is not enough ground to claim insanity.
Since cult members do not in fact show any signs of mental illness, the insanity plea in the court room, should not be considered. There are few ways in which this issue can be solved. One action that can take place to ensure that cult members cannot plea insanity in the court room is by undergoing a mandatory psychiatric observation. Once separated from the cult environment, as shown in A Shared Psychotic Disorder and Criminal Responsibilty: A Review and Case Report of Folie a Trois, dealing with the case of the three sisters previously discussed, cult members who have experienced psychological phenomenon such as delusions, may lose all symptoms once removed from their previous cult environment. In this case, having the defendant go through a mandatory multiday psychiatric observation with no contact with the cult realm they affiliate with, may prove to be beneficial in determining that they are not in fact mentally insane.
This solution, of a mandatory psychiatric observation, may prove to be costly, when factoring the cost of feeding the defendant, psychiatric services, possible medications and health services. However, if the defendant is proven to in fact be competent, and not mentally insane, the state would save money for the cost of housing an inmate would be far cheaper than paying their way in a state psychiatric facility. This action would directly affect the defendant, having them enrolled in a state intuition prior to their trial, and create more jobs for those who work in the mental health field. With more possible clients, more housing, and the need for more therapist, psychologist, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, and general staffing, the mental health hospital industry would boom, creating more opportunities to those in need of jobs.
Another possible action to ensure that cult members cannot plea mental insanity when on trial would be to actually put in place tests to determine insanity. However, tests like these are actually already in place and have been since the most popular, McNaughton rule. In order to further ensure that cult members on trial cannot plea insanity, more rules such as the McNaughton rule can be developed, this time, specifically for cult members. For instance, if the cult member has not shown any signs of mental illness since the crime, even if they were delusional at the time of it, they cannot plea mentally insane. The concept of temporary insanity should not be applicable to them. This would deduct the amount of defendants that can actually plea insanity, and speed up the trial process without the unnecessary question of their sanity. This would directly affect the defendant and everyone in the court room, doing so.
A similar solution that would not be as good, would be to completely eliminate the insanity defense for cult members on trial. This drastic solution, although going along with my argument, would be unfair to the very few cult members who may actually have a mental illness. Although research shows that cult members usually do not manifest any signs or mental disorders, there is a possibility that one may. This is why pleading insanity for cult members should be made more difficult and regulated, making it nearly impossible for those who are not, but still a choice for individuals who do suffer from mental illnesses.
These actions would change the trials of cult members on trial dramatically. Similar solutions are already in place such as the McNaughton rule and sessions that individuals on trial have with courtroom psychologists. However, the addition of more tests and evaluations specifically in place for cult members, because it is proven that most do not manifest mental illness, would speed up trials, create more jobs, and ensure that those on trial take responsibility for their criminal actions.
Clearly, from the beliefs that mental illnesses were the work of demons, to the modern day concept of insanity, the understanding of mentally disorders have greatly developed. In a time where people continue to search for new religious and spiritual answers to the questions that haunt them, more and more people are becoming involved in cults. Cult violence has continued to take place in modern day cults such as the current African cult situation that has left many innocent lives harmed. Cult members who partake in these violent acts should be put to justice. Those who clearly fit in with statistics that members do not usually suffer from mental illnesses, should not be able to plea insanity. Therefore, additional rules and regulations should be passed in order to make the process more difficult, but the option should not be completely banned, in order to protect the very few who may actually fit the mental insanity mold.
CBS News. “Cult Mom Pleads Guilty To Starving Son, 1.” CBS News, 2009. Web. 22 Feb. 2014
“Cult.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2014. Web. 1 May 2014
Cornell Law. “The 'insanity defense' and diminished capacity.” Cornell Law, n/a. Web. 25 March 2014.
Houston, David. “Legal Insanity.” Legal and Forensics Psychology. Psychology, 208, Memphis. 26 Feb. 2014, Lecture.
Jackson, Robin. “People Join Cults for a Variety of Reasons.” Cults: How They Work. 2008. Rpt. In Cults. Ed. Roman Espejo. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2013. Opposing Viewpoints. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 22 Feb. 2014
Joshi, Kaustubh G., Richard L. Frierson, and Tracy D. Gunter. "Shared Psychotic Disorder And Criminal Responsibility: A Review And Case Report Of Folie À Trois." Journal Of The American Academy Of Psychiatry And The Law 34.4 (2006): 511-517. PsycINFO. Web. 22 Feb. 2014
Niyi-Eke, Kola. “Police Arrest 2,000 Suspected Teenage Cult Members.” Africa News Service 16 Feb. 2014. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 22 Feb. 2014
Salande, Joseph and David R. Perkins. "An Object Relations Approach To Cult Membership." American Journal Of Psychotherapy 65.4 (2011): 381-391. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2014.8 Mar. 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.
Schwirtz, Michael. "Rikers Island Struggles With a Surge in Violence and Mental Illness." The New York Times. The New York Times, 1
“What Is A Cult?’Our America With Lisa Ling' Investigates.” Huffington Post, 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 1 March 2014
"10 of the World's Most Infamous Cults." HowStuffWorks. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
"5 20th Century Cult Leaders." History.com. A&E Television Networks, 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.