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Lesson Plan

Day One

Introduce the unit by clarifying what an insanity plea is and how they work within the legal system. Stimulate student interest by using the Anticipation Guide before and during the reading.

The possible steps are to have students:

  1. make their individual predictions,
  2. meet in small groups to discuss their logic,
  3. silent read to seek evidence for their interpretations from the article http://www.psych.org/public_info/insanity.cfm,
  4. meet back in their small groups to support or change their predictions, and
  5. to discuss their findings in a large group or the entire class.

Next, provide students with the law as it currently reads. California uses …"a variation of the 160-year-old McNaughton rule from England. That law requires the defense to prove—by a preponderance of the evidence—that a defendant, because of mental illness, either did not understand what he or she was doing when a crime was committed or that he or she did not know that the actions were wrong." (Newsbank, "Insanity Defense, ‘An Uphill Fight…..,’" by Patrick Pemberton).

Ask students these 3 questions to clarify their thoughts:

  1. If you were a defense lawyer, how might you prove that your client did not understand that what he or she did was a crime at the time or that he or she did not know that the actions were wrong?
  2. If you were a prosecuting lawyer, how might you prove that the accused did understand that what he or she did was a crime at the time or that he or she did know that the actions were wrong?
  3. In your opinion, is this a "good" law? Why?


Bring in 3 biographical facts related to the court case about any of one the following people-

  • SF Supervisor Dan White,
  • John Hinckley,
  • The Menendez Brothers, and
  • Andrea Yates.

(Students should be encouraged to use Urban Dreams in-class computers during lunch time or before or after school)

Day Two

Set up a time line starting with

Students can use the Table of Insanity Defense Trials to assist them in organizing facts regarding these cases and others.

Use the two opinion articles on Andrea Yates

  1. by David Kopel http://www.nationalreview.com/kopel/kopelprint082801.html and
  2. by Sherry F. Colb http://writ.news.findlaw.com/scripts/printer_friendly.pl?page=/colb/20020327.html.

Divide the class in two by giving the Kopel article to one-half of the class and the Colb article to the other, explaining to students that they will be counted on to discuss the important parts of their article with another student. Then:

  1. have students read his/her article silently,
  2. pair a student that read the Kopel article with one that read the Colb article and have each student explain what his/her article was arguing,
  3. divide the class in half and have each side explain the context of their article and what they agree and disagree with,
  4. and finally have students write a position paper in which they agree or disagree with the 40 year sentence without parole that Yates was given, explaining why they took that point of view.

Day Three

Use the Directed Reading Guide to begin exploring information concerning schizophrenia in the article, "A Troubled Mind……." (Newsbank, "A Trouble Mind, What it’s really like to live with schizophrenia," by Nancy Shute). Use the information that the students have gathered from the article and past knowledge to develop a working definition of schizophrenia and its symptoms.

Begin the movie, "A Beautiful Mind." Using the Two-Column Note method, have students list the symptoms, social ramifications, and possible dangerous actions that John Nash displays. At critical points, the teacher should stop the movie for discussion and ask questions dealing with insanity pleas. For example, when Nash left his infant son unattended in the bathtub, could he be charged with neglect or even murder if the child had drowned? Would an insanity plea serve as a reasonable defense?

Day Four, Day Five, and Day Six

Continue the movie and the same related-activities.

Mock Trial: the next exercise is designed to allow students to experience the court room setting as well as a case in which an insanity plea is used. Begin setting up for the mock trial by viewing these sites as a guide to establishing procedures, : Order of Events and http://www.judicial.state.ia.us/about/procdur/tiral.asp, then click on About Our Courts and The Trial Process. http://www.judicial.state.ia.us/about/procedur/trial.asp

Read and discuss the Facts concerning the case. Choose roles and advise the prosecuting team and defense team to meet to set up their cases. I’d advise giving the students 2 days or the weekend to work on their roles. This trial usually takes two to four days of classroom time.

Homework: Write a prediction of what James’ life will be like in five years. What do you think his life will be like in 10 years? In 20 years?

Day Seven

Research Paper: Write a research paper on a famous insanity defense trial. Recommend that students use a variety of sources including the library and the internet. Ebsco, The Gale Group, Google, Yahoo, AOL, etc are great sources and recommended.

As a final activity:

  1. individually retake the Anticipation Guide, in order to note changes in student attitude if any,
  2. have students meet in small groups to discuss changes and the logic behind those changes,
  3. and lastly poll the class as a whole to determine what statements received the most change and what statements received the least change. Discuss as a class why and whether the willingness to change one’s attitude and opinion is a positive or negative in our society.
Essential Question
Content Standards
Lesson Plan
Anticipation Guide
Directed Reading Guide
Mock Trial Order of Events
Mock Trial Facts
Mock Trial Roles

Urban Dreams
OUSD Curriculum Unit
Insanity Defense Pleas
Subject: Psychology/Government
Grade Level: 12th

Lesson Plan Author:
Pat Tinloy
Organization: OUSD