[First read the introductory post, Meet Dexter Morgan.] Several times throughout the series, Dexter finds himself just a hair—or fiber or blood drop—away from getting caught. In season two, for example, FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy comes close to discovering that Dexter is the Bay Harbor Butcher. And if the Feds and Miami Metro were able to link all of those dead bodies to Dexter, what defense could he possibly have? More specifically, could Dexter successfully argue that he was insane and therefore not legally responsible for his multiple homicides?
Several myths about the insanity defense have invaded television shows and the media more generally. First, many crime dramas imply that if a murderer successfully fools the jury, and if the jurors find him insane, then he gets to walk free. This is not the case. In fact, a defendant who commits a serious crime but is found “not guilty by reason of insanity” will likely be taken into custody just the same—and for just as long—as a defendant who is not insane.[i] However, instead of being “sentenced” to a state prison, a defendant who is found insane would be “committed” to a government mental facility. Either way, he could be confined and kept away from the public, and would still be subjected to the same collateral consequences as if he were found guilty, including sex-offender registry for sex-crimes,[ii] and a prohibition on firearm possession for all felony crimes,[iii] to name only a few of the bonuses that come with a criminal conviction.
Second, and more to the issue of whether Dexter’s hypothetical insanity defense would be successful, courts typically require the defendant to prove that he was insane, rather than require the prosecutor to prove that the defendant was sane.[iv] And proving insanity could be an extremely difficult, if not an impossible, task. It could be impossible because state laws vary dramatically, and some states don’t even recognize the defense.[v] And for the states that do permit the defense, their legislatures have devised different substantive laws, procedural rules, and even burdens of proof—often making it incredibly difficult for a defendant to prevail.[vi]
But let’s consider a fairly liberal, hypothetical version of the insanity defense, and see just how tough it would be for Dexter to win in court—again, assuming he was caught and tried for the Bay Harbor Butcher murders:
A defendant is not criminally liable if, when he committed the act, he had a mental disease or defect and either: (1) could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his act; or (2) he was unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.[vii]
Essentially, then, this hypothetical insanity-defense law would first require Dexter to show that he had a mental disease or defect at the time he killed, sliced, and diced his victims. If he did, he would then have to show that, because of his mental problem, he either didn’t know that his conduct was wrong, or, if he did know that it was wrong, he was simply unable to resist doing the deed.
Dexter would have at least an argument that he has a mental disease or defect. After all, as a young boy he watched his mother get murdered, and then had to sit in her blood in a shipping container for several days before being rescued. (That kind of thing can mess with a kid’s head.) And Dexter later confessed to Harry Morgan, his adoptive father, that he has wanted to kill a human from a very young age. As Dexter grows older, he develops a better understanding of his homicidal urges and refers to them, collectively, as his “dark passenger”—as if there was a completely separate person inside of him. He has even said that he doesn’t kill because he wants to, but because he has to: “Tonight’s the night. And it’s going to happen again, and again. It has to happen. It’s not what I want. But what I want doesn’t matter.”
However, Dexter was never diagnosed with a mental disease or defect. In fact, rather than getting Dexter the professional help he needed at a young age, Harry taught him how to fool psychiatrists and how to answer their questions to avoid a diagnosis. He also taught Dexter how to act on his violent urges in ways that Harry thought were constructive. For purposes of Dexter’s hypothetical insanity trial, then, he would need to be formally diagnosed. So let’s assume that a psychiatrist agreed that Dexter has a mental disease or defect. This brings us to the next part of the insanity defense.
Could Dexter demonstrate to a jury that he was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions? Stated differently, could he demonstrate that he was so mentally ill he had no idea that what he was doing—killing people and sending them to their final resting place below sea level—was illegal? The problem in all insanity-defense cases is that there’s usually some evidence of planning, and “there’s often some evidence that [the defendant] did things to avoid getting caught.”[viii] And why would a person carefully plan things, and take steps before or after the crime to avoid getting caught? Because they knew that what they were doing was wrong. In legal terms: they appreciated the wrongfulness of their acts.
So let’s take a look at Dexter. Unfortunately for his hypothetical insanity defense, Dexter is a meticulous planner. Before making a kill, he thoroughly researches his target. He prepares his tools of choice. He carefully plots his plan of attack. Dexter has even said: “Preparation is vital. No detail can be overlooked.” And what about Dexter’s behavior after-the-fact? He goes to great lengths to cover his tracks. He takes extreme measures to ensure that every drop of blood, every fiber, every hair—nearly every imaginable piece of potential evidence—is properly disposed of. He admits, and even says with pride: “I’m a very neat monster.”
There is strong evidence, therefore, that when Dexter killed his victims, he knew what he was doing was wrong, or at least illegal. But what about the second prong of the insanity defense? Even assuming Dexter knew that what he was doing was wrong, what if he was simply unable to conform his behavior to the law? What if the urges were too strong? What if his “dark passenger” took over? What if Dexter simply had to kill?
Dexter would likely have problems with this prong of the defense as well. Recall in season two when Sergeant Dokes suspected Dexter was somehow linked to the Bay Harbor Butcher murders, so he used every minute of his spare time to follow Dexter. But Dexter was aware of his new-found stalker, so he went out of his way not to break any laws—especially the big ones. At one point, Dexter even lamented that “38 days, 16 hours, and 12 minutes have passed” since his last kill. That demonstrates that he’s quite capable of toeing the line when there’s a substantial risk that he’ll be caught. This would likely lead a jury to conclude that he is capable of conforming his behavior to the requirements of the law—at least when he decides it’s in his best interests to do so.
So if Dexter had been caught and exposed as the Bay Harbor Butcher, he would have a very tough time winning an insanity defense at trial. The jury would likely echo the words of Lila—Dexter’s “sponsor,” sex-partner, and eventual victim from season two: “You say ‘I can’t help it; I’m a monster!’ And ‘oh, of course I was gonna do that; I’m a monster!’ It’s sad. And it’s pathetic.”
But taking a step back, even if Dexter was caught, is he really the kind of guy that would want to pursue an insanity defense? He knows that life is short, so he lives it to the fullest. He accepts that no matter how careful he is, he could be caught at any time. He also knows that he’s just one step away from “lethal injection time.” (He knows this because, when he was a child, Harry took him to view a public execution—another example of great parenting in the formative years.) And, most importantly, Dexter never makes excuses or blames others for his actions. He admits: “I’m neither man nor beast. I’m something new entirely, with my own set of rules. I’m Dexter.”
[i] For an example, see Wisconsin Statute section 971.17 (b) which reads in part “when a defendant is found not guilty by reason of mental disease or mental defect (i.e., insanity) of a felony . . . the court shall commit the person . . . for a specified period not exceeding the maximum term of confinement in prison that could be imposed on an offender convicted of the same felony . . .”
[ii] For an example, see Wisconsin Statute section 971.17 (1m).
[iii] For an example, see Wisconsin Statute section 971.17 (1g).
[iv] Insanity defenses vary dramatically from state-to-state; even the federal system has its own set of laws and rules on the defense. In most jurisdictions, the burden is on the defendant to prove, rather than the government to disprove, insanity. For an example, see Wisconsin Statute section 971.15 (3) which imposes a preponderance of the evidence burden on the defendant, and reads in part that insanity “is an affirmative defense which the defendant must establish to a reasonable certainty by the greater weight of the preponderance of the credible evidence.”
[v] Lincoln Caplan, “The Insanity Defense and the Constitution,” The New York Times,
November 28, 2012, at http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/28/the-insanity-defense-and-the-constitution/,
accessed May 13, 2013 (discussing four states that refuse to recognize the insanity
[vi] Carrie Johnson, “Insanity Defense Could be a Tough Sell for Loughner,” NPR Online, January 20, 2011, at http://www.npr.org/2011/01/20/133057658/insanity-defense-could-be-a-tough-sell-for-loughner, accessed May 13, 2013 (discussing
’s tough, anti-defendant insanity defense law). Arizona
[vii] This hypothetical law is loosely based on
’s insanity defense law, which can be found in
Wisconsin Statute section 971.15 (1). Wisconsin
[viii] Carrie Johnson, “Insanity Defense Could be a Tough Sell for Loughner.”