Did You Know this about mental health and criminal law?

9780727887344_FCIn DEADLY DANCE, the discovery of the partially-clothed body of a teenage girl in Bristol’s red-light district indicates a tragic yet familiar scenario for DI David Vogel. But this marks the start of a murder investigation where nothing is as it seems. Fourteen-year-old Melanie Cooke told her mother she was visiting a school friend.  Who was she really going to meet?   A darkly complex secret lies behind Melanie’s death and DI David Vogel is led towards three very different principal protagonists. Are they what they seem and is any one of them capable of murder?  Its ultimate revelation will shock Vogel to the core.  Here, author Hilary Bonner talks about understanding of mental health issues, and pleas of insanity.


Mental health has figured in British criminal law for centuries.

Insanity was first used as a defence in court in 1324.

The early law used terms like ‘idiot’, ‘fool’, and ‘sot’ to refer to those who had been insane from birth, and ‘lunatic’ for those who had later become insane. And, from the start, if an insane person committed a crime he was not punished in the same way as a sane felon.

In many cases the insane defendant was released and allowed to go home. A lunatic who became insane prior to the trial could not be executed, nor, after 1542, tried in court for felonies up to and including high treason.

Famously, in 1800,  when a man called James Hadfield attempted to assassinate George III his counsel put forward the defence of insanity. Hadfield claimed that he believed the second coming of Christ would be brought about by his own death, and therefore attempted to be judicially executed. He approached the King in the royal box at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, firing a pistol at him. However, the king was bowing to the audience at the time, and the shot fired over his head. Hadfield’s counsel, whilst admitting that because Hadfield had planned the attack the normal defence of insanity would not have been sufficient, argued that the true test of insanity was ‘delusions, frenzy, or raving madness.’

The jury’s verdict was not guilty – ‘he being under the influence of insanity at the time the act was committed.

Over the centuries understanding of mental health issues has greatly increased. And insanity pleas have become subject to closer and more scientific scrutiny, both from mental health professionals and within the criminal justice system.

In 1981, almost exactly 100 years after the Hadfield trial, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe was charged with the murder of thirteen prostitutes and the attempted murder of seven more. On the advice of his, at the time much criticized, legal team, Sutcliffe pleaded not guilty to murder on grounds of diminished responsibility, owing to a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

The jury rejected the plea.

DEADLY DANCE by Hilary Bonner is published in the UK by Severn House on 31 August 2017, £20.99.  The book will be published in hardback in the USA, and in eBook, on 1 December.  For further information please visit our website here

Praise for Hilary Bonner

“Bonner has a fine reputation for strongly written, disturbing novels. With a sparkling cast and engaging panache, this one twists and turns seductively, before revealing its secrets” Daily Mail on Friends to Die For

“This creepy and claustrophobic psychological thriller races along, with a twist to the last page” Sunday Mirror on The Cruellest Game

“Bonner’s taut, compelling tales have more twists and turns than an English country lane. She’ll drive you to distraction”  Val McDermid on When the Dead Cry Out


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