Insanity as a defence from criminal liability has gripped law courts from mid-19th century. McNaughten, a Scottish wood turner shot to death Edward Drummond, the private secretary to Robert Peel, the Prime minister of England. He produced a certificate of insanity and pleaded that under a paranoid delusion he shot the deceased, mistaking Drummond to be Robert Peel. He said he was unsound in mind when he did the act. The plea was accepted and Mc Naughten was found not guilty. This brought a reference to the House of Lords. Five questions were answered thus “until the contrary be proved to their satisfaction; and that, to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong”.
This defence is available under Indian law and is enshrined in sec. 84 IPC which says nothing is an offence which is done by a person who at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to law. Mc naughten law requires a relook because various theories are going round in the backdrop of the investigation regarding the gruesome murder of a family of four at Thiruvananthapuram by the son who claims several woolly things. A top psychiatrist strongly advocated during a channel debate that the accused is schizophrenic, he was under a delusion and therefore, incapable of understanding the nature of the act. There were also reports that he was subjected to psychiatric screening by doctors, who opined that the accused is psychic. If these opinions have some ground then the case is one of legal insanity.
However, the line of police investigation does not subscribe to the view that the accused did the act under insanity. According to the police, the accused did the act with intention and knowledge and after a well thought out plan. The execution was that of a professional. The accused absconded after the crime. The version of the accused that he was doing astral projection is a false story woven to misdirect the investigation. What is the law on this point? In a case decided in 2016 by Justice S. Nagamuthu of Madras High court in Jayalekhmi v State, the theory of “Psycho motor activity retardation” was accepted to acquit a woman of triple murder of her children. She threw her children in a well and jumped into the well due to abject poverty. There was insufficient water in the well. So she survived. She was found guilty by the sessions judge for first degree murder.
The High court found that the accused was incapable of understanding the nature and consequences of her act by reason of unsoundness of mind. In understanding the scope of insanity as a defense in a charge of murder it is cardinal that one should keep in mind that there is a clear distinction between medical insanity and legal insanity. One may be medically insane but legally sane. Insanity under law refers to the degree of responsibility. Shrikant Anand Rao Bhosale AIR 2002 SC 3399 is a case in point. The accused, a policeman, hit his wife with a grinding stone when she was washing clothes. There was proof of record of insanity previous and post the occurrence but the defence was turned down by the session’s judge and by the High court.
But the apex court acquitted him. “The medical profession would undoubtedly treat the appellant herein as a mentally sick person. However, for the purpose of claiming the benefit of the defense of insanity in law, the appellant would have to prove that his cognitive faculties were so impaired, at the time when the crime was committed, as not to know the nature of the act”, ruled the apex court. So the existence of a medical opinion as to insanity is not sufficient to establish legal insanity. However, the burden to prove insanity can be discharged by a proof of a preponderance of probability.
In the case of Cadell Jeansen Raja, there is enough material to show that the police suspected insanity at the start of investigation and therefore under law it was the duty of the police to subject the accused for psychiatric screening by a medical board before he is charge-sheeted. In Abhilash v State reported in ILR (2015) 3 Ker.826, Kerala High court ruled that when the plea of insanity is known to the investigation officer it is his duty to subject the accused to medical examination and place the evidence in court. So if the police suspects that the murders are as a result of astral projection, a case of schizophrenia, it is necessary to bring medical evidence before the court.
(The author is special public prosecutor for Customs and Central Excise)...