Between belief and delusion: Cult members and the insanity plea

Brian Holoyda, William Newman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Cults are charismatic groups defined by members’ adherence to a set of beliefs and teachings that differ from those of mainstream religions. Cult beliefs may appear unusual or bizarre to those outside of the organization, which can make it difficult for an outsider to know whether a belief is cult-related or delusional. In accordance with these beliefs, or at the behest of a charismatic leader, some cult members may participate in violent crimes such as murder and later attempt to plead not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). It is therefore necessary for forensic experts who evaluate cult members to understand how the court has responded to such individuals and their beliefs when they mount a defense of NGRI for murder. Based on a review of extant appellate court case law, cult member defendants have not yet successfully pleaded NGRI on the basis of cult involvement, despite receiving a broad array of psychiatric diagnoses that could qualify for such a defense. With the reintroduction of cult involvement in the DSM-5 criteria for other specified dissociative disorder, however, there may be a resurgence of dissociative-type diagnoses in future cult-related cases, both criminal and civil.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-62
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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