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Jan 26, 2022
The insanity defense — that a criminal defendant can be not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity — is probably the criminal law’s most controversial defense. It has long reflected the moral sense that society has a duty not to punish those who cannot comprehend their crimes, but it has also led to the acquittals of some of the most famous murderers, or would-be murderers, in history. Keen to know more? Let's dive in.
1 - A ‘Guilty Mind’
The test of criminal liability for centuries in Western jurisprudence is perhaps best expressed in the Latin phrase actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea: “The act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty.” In other words, our very concept of crime and culpability depends not just on the act of the defendant but on whether he had a “guilty mind” at the time. So, can a defendant be guilty if she was crazy at the time of her crime and not cognizant of the nature of her actions? That’s the situation that the insanity defense was designed to address.
2 - British Origins
The first major modern use of the defense begins in 19th century Great Britain. On May 15, 1800, a former British soldier who had received eight blows to the head with a saber while fighting for his country made an attempt on the life of the leader of that country. As King George III entered the Theater Royal in London, a delusional James Hadfield, believing that the second coming of Jesus Christ would be advanced by his own judicial execution, discharged a horse pistol at the monarch. Unfortunately for Hadfield, he not only missed his target but he also managed to avoid execution when he was acquitted of high treason, being found not guilty by way of insanity in a landmark case.
3 - The M’Naghten Rule
Decades later, the case of Daniel M’Naghten, a deranged Scottish woodcutter who tried to assassinate the prime minister in 1843, established what would be called the M’Naghten rule (the basis for most modern insanity defense standards): A criminal defendant is considered to have been insane at the time of an act if he or she did not know right from wrong.
The Insanity Defense Comes to America
1 - A Star-Spangled Murder
The insanity defense journeyed across the Atlantic in the 1850s to address the most scandalous murder of the time. In Lafayette Square, just yards from the White House, on the morning of Feb. 27, 1859, a sitting U.S. congressman named Daniel Sickles shot and killed the district attorney for Washington, D.C., Barton Key — son of “Star-Spangled Banner” lyricist Francis Scott Key — in broad daylight.
2 - An All-Star Legal Team
There was no dispute that Sickles, armed with multiple firearms, had shot Key three times in front of multiple witnesses. What Sickles’ eight-member all-star legal team, which included future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, did dispute was the client’s state of mind and moral justification. Key had been having an affair with Sickles’ wife, and the defense argued that the enraged Sickles had been rendered temporarily insane when he spotted his wife’s lover in the square.
3 - A Landmark Verdict
After a three-week trial, the jury reached its decision in just 70 minutes: Daniel Sickles was free to go, and remain in Congress. Many in the press and public agreed with the exoneration, and hundreds would join Sickles in a victory party that evening.
A Presidential Assassin
1 - Impressing Jodie Foster
Perhaps the most famous invocation of the defense came in the wake of an attempted assassination attempt of a U.S. president. In March 1981, on his way to visit the actress Jodie Foster, enrolled as an undergraduate at Yale University, the mentally disturbed 25-year-old John Hinckley Jr. stopped off in Washington, D.C., and ended up shooting President Ronald Reagan in front of the Hilton Hotel. Hinckley claimed he was trying to impress Foster, with whom he was infatuated. He later described the incident in a letter to The New York Times as "the greatest love offering in the history of the world.”
2 - Legally Insane
Hinckley nearly killed Reagan, but to convict him for the assassination attempt, the prosecution had to prove the defendant was either not mentally ill, or if he was, that he could still appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions and conform to the law. In the end, Hinckley’s defense attorneys successfully argued that he had been so depressed and delusional at the time of the shooting that he could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions. The jury ruled that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, and Hinckley was sentenced to a government psychiatric hospital rather than prison.
3 - Public Outcry
After Hinckley’s acquittal, there was an immediate public outcry, and widespread calls for the abolishment of the insanity-plea laws. As a consequence, the United States Congress and a number of states revised laws governing when the insanity defense may be used by the defendant in a criminal prosecution. Idaho, Montana and Utah abolished the defense altogether. Hinckley was confined to a mental hospital until he was eventually released in 2016.
Modern Invocation: Aurora Shooter James Holmes
1 - Movie Massacre
In July 2012, 23-year-old James Holmes opened fire on a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others. The case was somewhat unusual: Unlike the shooters involved in other mass shootings in America, including Columbine, Newtown and Las Vegas, Holmes survived the massacre.
2 - The Mind of a Murderer
After Holmes surrendered, lawyers, psychiatrists and the American public were given a rare chance to observe a mass murderer directly, to glimpse inside the mind of someone who is both mentally ill and highly intelligent, and to try to understand how an honors student from a loving family could transform into a crazed killer.
3 - The Longest Sentence in History
While all of the experts agreed that Holmes would not have carried out the attacks if he weren’t mentally ill, it seemed like he still knew the difference between right and wrong and was aware of the consequences of his actions. The jury returned its verdict very swiftly, handing Holmes the longest criminal sentence in American history: 3,318 years without parole. Only a lone holdout juror prevented him from getting the death penalty.
Who tried to kill U.S. President Ronald Reagan in March 1981?
Mark David Chapman
Lee Harvey Oswald
John Hinckley Jr.
In which country did the modern-day standard for legal insanity originate?
The United States
Where did James Holmes open fire on a movie theater crowd in 2012?
Las Vegas, Nevada
The son of which famous American was murdered by a jealous congressman in 1859?
Francis Scott Key
Robert E. Lee
Which mass shooter received the longest prison sentence in American history?
John Hinckley Jr.
Which actress was John Hinckley Jr. trying to impress with his attempted assassination?
John Hinckley Jr. was released from a mental institution in what year?
Brains on Trial With Alan Alda (2013): This PBS series examines how developments in neuroscience are affecting court cases, and how the growing ability to separate truth from lies, even decode people’s thoughts and memories, may radically affect how criminal trials are conducted in the future.
What to Listen To:
The Thread, season four: OZY’s chart-topping history podcast explores the controversial criminal defense that ties together some of the most notorious crimes and defendants in history, from Lorena Bobbitt to John Hinckley Jr. to James Holmes.
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