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JAMA 100 Years Ago
July 11, 2001


Author Affiliations

JenniferReiling, Assistant Editor

JAMA. 2001;286(2):140. doi:10.1001/jama.286.2.140-JJY10020-3-1

The newspapers have recently devoted some of their news and editorial space to a case in which an alleged lunatic was liberated by an Indiana court decision as not insane, and have dilated upon the occurrence as a proof that under existing laws sane persons are liable to be committed to the "living death" of asylum existence. There is nothing that more quickly stirs up the public than such a charge, and there has been an evident tendency to make the most of it. Without regard to the merits of the particular case or to the peculiarities of Indiana laws, it may safely be said that the danger of sane persons being long confined in public asylums is a minimal one. It seems to us also that the presumption is all in favor of the insanity of a person detained in an asylum under presumably competent and honest medical officers, however the courts may decide. Dangerous lunatics have been released by judges and juries as not insane and the same individuals have been recommitted by judicial procedure almost immediately as a measure of public safety. In other cases suicides, murders and other dangerous acts have quickly followed their release. In fact there is nothing less infallible than judicial decisions as regards insanity, that is, as regards its existence or non-existence in individual cases. In states where a judicial proceeding is required for commitment it is possible for perfectly sane persons to be found insane, and vice versa. The predilections, however, of courts and juries rarely permit the first error, while the latter one is probably frequent enough. There is a very serious possible danger of the enlargement of unsuitable cases in any popular agitation in regard to the supposed confinement of sane persons, and judges and juries should realize their responsibility and make sure by fully competent testimony as to the fitness for absolute liberty of anyone they order released.

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