Durham Standard or ‘The Irrisistable Impluse’

Next came the Durham standard or ‘product test’, a rule adopted by the United States Court of Appeals in 1954. It resulted from the case Durham v. U.S.  and stated that “… an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or defect”. It was more relaxed and took into account the ‘irresistible impulse’ not covered in the M’Naghten Rules.

The Case

Monte Durham was 23 years old when he was placed on trial for housebreaking. He was convicted, but his attorney appealed. At the original trial the judge ruled that his attorneys had failed to prove that he did not know the difference between right and wrong (the criteria for the M’Naghten Rules.). However at the appeal there were two important arguments made. The first being that the trial court had not correctly applied the existing rule (M’Naghten) and most crucially that the ruling should be reversed ‘because existing tests of criminal responsibility are obsolete and should be superseded.’

Important facts concerning Durham’s life and mental state were brought to light. He had been in prisons and mental institutions for several years, and discharged from the Navy. Psychiatric examinations led to diagnoses of personality disorders. At one point he had attempted suicide and in prison had been diagnosed as suffering from ‘psychosis with psychopathic personality’.

The Ruling

The judge declared the M’Naghten rule “an entirely obsolete and misleading conception of the nature of insanity.”

As already stated, the Durham standard was much more lenient that the M’Naghten rule. It was intended to create a simplified and very open test that would ensure all possible information and evidence from the scientific fields of human behavior.  In doing so it transferred the question from a legal arena to a medical and humanitarian one.


Criticism of it mostly rested on the exaggerated importance placed on ‘expert witnesses’. The test required a psychologist to use his or her judgment in gauging whether the crime was caused by the mental disease. This was directly resultant from the concerns that the M’Naghten rule did not allow for expert witnesses to fully give their opinions about the defendant’s mental state. It suffered from problems in implementation, placing to high an importance on expert testimony as well as casting ‘too broad a net’ to the point where it could include compulsive gamblers and drinkers. It has been argued that the standard often devolved into a contest between experts; one in which the jury often became lost. It was overruled in 1972 in the United States v. Brawner, discussed in the next section.




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