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Law School Case Brief

Durham v. United States - 94 U.S. App. D.C. 228, 214 F.2d 862 (1954)

Rule:

An accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect. "Disease" is used in the sense of a condition which is considered capable of either improving or deteriorating. "Defect" is used in the sense of a condition which is not considered capable of either improving or deteriorating and which may be either congenital, or the result of injury, or the residual effect of a physical or mental disease.

Facts:

Monte Durham was arrested and charged with housebreaking. He was then adjudged of unsound mind and committed to a hospital. Six months later, Durham was released on the certificate of the hospital's superintendent, which stated that Durham was mentally competent to stand trial. Thereafter, the trial court convicted Durham of housebreaking on the grounds that there was no evidence of Durham’s state of mind. Thus, the trial court held that the presumption of sanity prevailed, despite numerous testimonies alleging otherwise. 

Issue:

Taking into consideration the facts of the case, did the presumption of Durham’s sanity prevail, thereby justifying his conviction of the crime of housebreaking? 

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

Reversing the conviction, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that there was sufficient testimony to overcome the presumption of sanity because the expert witness stated at least four times that Durham was of unsound mind at the time of the crime, and Durham’s mother provided testimony that was directly pertinent to the issue of Durham’s insanity. Finding that as an exclusive criterion the right-wrong test is inadequate, the Court concluded that a broader test should be adopted. The Court held that the proper test of criminal responsibility was that an accused was not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect. 

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