I am writing a one act play about a trial. The evidence is piled against the defendant, and he wants to plead insanity. What are other ways of stating that? What are other ways to refer to that plea? I do not want to be overly repetitive by using only one phrase.

  • 3
    "Pleading insanity" is a legal concept. If the character tries to clothe it in different words, it might well not fit the criteria of the court, and therefore not be an actual insanity plea with all the legal consequences it should have.
    – rumtscho
    Jan 5, 2015 at 20:37
  • 3
    "I plead wibble-wubble-pipetty-poo. π is exactly 3! The little mouse that lives in my beard likes you. Michael Bay films are worth the cost of a cinema ticket. I need my aluminium hat to keep the government satellites from spying on my thoughts".
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 5, 2015 at 21:56
  • I think mental defect may be the actual legal term for insanity these days.
    – Barmar
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:41
  • You could always have him use assorted different synonyms for "plead" and "insanity". Or you might be able to play games with the "M'Naghten Rule" or some other bit of precedent.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 6, 2015 at 0:07

4 Answers 4


I was a prosecutor in the US, which does not mean I am right, but it might affect how you interpret my opinion.

First, "plea of insanity" is imprecise. In all US jurisdictions, when the defendant is required to enter a plea, the defendant may plead guilty or not guilty. Some jurisdictions allow a plea of no contest.

Insanity is an appendage to the above pleas. Most jurisdictions allow a defendant to enter a plea worded something like "not guilty by reason of insanity." A few jurisdictions allow a plea similar to "guilty but insane." The root issue of insanity in a criminal charge is the culpability of the defendant. If you believe it is necessary to not be "overly repetitive", then if you study the legal theories of culpability, then you will find much inspiration.

Nevertheless, legal terms such as "not guilty" and "insanity" are extremely precise, and when writing and speaking about law using synonyms for legal terms-of-art is highly problematic. I realize you are writing a play and not a legal memo, but consistently using terms of art will reduce ambiguity and confusion, so you may want to consider not using a synonym except when the speaker does not have legal training.

Off the top of my head, the only substitution that criminal lawyers might make is to say, "The defendant is claiming insanity." In that sentence, "claim" is a term-of-art that is an acceptable synonym for plea.

Good luck with your play. As a former trial lawyer, I don't envy your challenge of making a trial interesting to spectators!

  • Just as a matter of interest are you familiar in the USA with the M'Naghton Rules? This Wiki entry may be of interest.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – WS2
    Jan 6, 2015 at 9:06
  • Any competent US criminal lawyer will know all of the concepts described by those rules, but it is exceptionally rare that we call them "the M'Naghton Rules". I have a vague recollection of reading in law school a House of Lords case that tangentially mentioned the term. I don't know of any reason why we don't use the name because we do use other terms of British origin, such as Statute of Frauds. Jan 6, 2015 at 9:27
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    It always seems astonishing to me that we still rely on rules handed down from a case in 1843 to determine something such as 'insanity'. I suppose that although the technical workings of the brain are so much better understood nowadays, the understanding of the nature of a person's 'mind' and 'intent' has moved on little over the last two centuries.
    – WS2
    Jan 6, 2015 at 9:57
  • @WS2 there's been a lot of change since in how understanding of the workings of the brain has changed "insanity"; those studying the workings of the brain have abandoned it as useful to them, leaving it only for courts and lawyers.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 6, 2015 at 10:12
  • If there is a God, then may she have mercy on us all if anything is ever abandoned to only the lawyers to explore. Jan 6, 2015 at 14:44

how about

  • "use the insanity defense"
  • "plead guilty due to reasons of insanity"

If you want to be even more roundabout

  • The defendant's state of mind was central to his defense

In the UK all this is largely governed by The Criminal Procedures (Insanity) Act 1964 which replaced the Trial of Lunatics Act, 1883.

A number of possibilities are open. A person can be found to be unfit (by virtue of insanity) to plead. If such a condition is accepted by a judge, the trial simply does not take place. one key question can be as to whether the defendant possessed mens rea (an intending mind) at the time of the alleged crime.

They can also be found not guilty by virtue of insanity, or guilty but insane.

There are other possibilities. It is a complex area of the law.

There is a set of rules known as the M'Naghton Rules which were those applied in the celebrated case where Daniel M'Naghton was acquitted in 1843 of murdering Edward Drummond (whom he mistook for the Prime Minister, Robert Peel). In Britain and other Common Law jurisdictions the M'Naghton Rules still provide guidance to judges in determining fitness to plead, or insanity.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M'Naghten_rules#Presumption_of_sanity_and_burden_of_proof


"[on the grounds of] diminished responsibility."


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