A Journey with the Insanity Defense

One of the many unexpected experiences I had while writing my last book, Grievous Deeds, was that I found myself in the unfamiliar position of feeling compassion toward someone who intentionally committed a crime and then pleaded Not Guilty by reason of insanity.

While everyone accepts insane people exist, most Americans are skeptical of the insanity defense. That may be why it is employed in less than 1% of cases and it fails 75% of the time it is used. The public is instinctively suspicious and reluctant to believe people can be not guilty by reason of insanity. That reluctance is reinforced by high profile cases featuring defendants who feign insanity to avoid responsibility for their crimes, like David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam.

The insanity defense was first used in England when a psychotic man named Daniel M’Naghten was acquitted after trying to assassinate the Prime Minister. This established the M’Naghten Rule, the gist of which is that a defendant can’t be found guilty of an offense if his mental illness caused him to not know/understand the nature of his criminal acts and he didn’t know his conduct was wrong and illegal.

The United States imported the M’Naghten Rule but we Americans are always more apt than our friends in England to reward heinous crimes with capital punishment. Less than 40 years after M’Naghten, the U.S. had an opportunity to apply this standard when Charles Guiteau, career criminal, shot President James Garfield in July 1881. The president later died.

Guiteau’s attorneys argued their client met the standard for insanity as explained in the M’Naghten Rule. They employed an expert witness and alienist (i.e., psychiatrist) named Edward Spitzka to help save the defendant from the gallows. Spitzka testified Guiteau was insane and “a moral monstrosity.”

In court, Guiteau interrupted often. He was wont to break into song or recite poetry. He consulted on his case with random spectators in the courtroom. He cursed the prosecution, the witnesses, and the judge. He abused his defense team as stupid.

Charles Guiteau, moral monstrosity


Guiteau may have had a point about his defense team. After Garfield was shot, the doctors operated on the president without washing their hands and they used unsterilized instruments to prod the president’s wounds. Infection set in and Garfield died eleven weeks after Guiteau shot him. Had he received competent care, he would likely have recovered. Guiteau argued, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.” It’s true but I guess it doesn’t impact Guiteau’s guilt.

The jury didn’t look favorably on the defense. They convicted Guiteau and sentenced him to death. The assassin, unruffled, explained the new president, Chester Arthur, knew that he (Guiteau) had saved the country by killing Garfield. Strangely enough, the convicted man seemed to genuinely believe he would receive a presidential pardon. When he didn’t get it, he accused President Arthur of the “basest ingratitude.” Ouch. Not long afterwards, Guiteau was hanged.

In 1972, the American Law Institute announced they had modernized the legal standard with a new rule for insanity that features more slippery language, such as whether a defendant “appreciates” his criminality.

I can change my mind if I see enough objective evidence but I’m still skeptical of the insanity defense. What is different is that I didn’t think I could feel any compassion for someone like Dave Edwards, who committed an awful crime. But I feel tremendous compassion for him.

Dave had a long history of mental illness. At different points in his life, he was diagnosed with “homicidal and suicidal mania” and what was then known as “circular insanity.”  He had a lot working against him. But he also made conscious choices.

Dave’s story hurt my heart in more ways than one. I can see very clearly what he could have been. I don’t envy the men on his jury.

Grievous Deeds will be released on March 30.

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