insanity on trial
ralph tortorici
mentally ill inmates

Summaries of famous and significant insanity defense cases, from the trial of the house painter who shot U.S. President Andrew Jackson in 1835, to the case of Andrew Goldstein, a diagnosed schizophrenic who killed a woman just weeks after he was released from a psychiatric ward.

: Richard Lawrence (acquitted, 1835)

Richard Lawrence was an unemployed house painter in his 30s who fired two pistols at U.S. President Andrew Jackson as Jackson walked through the Capitol Rotunda during a funeral procession. Both pistols misfired, and Lawrence was quickly apprehended. He was the first person charged with the attempted assassination of a U.S. president. Lawrence apparently suffered from delusions of persecution, believing that he was heir to the British throne and that Jackson had thwarted him by conspiring to keep him from receiving a fortune with which he could return to England and claim his seat. He also believed that Jackson had killed his father. At his one-day trial, Lawrence repeatedly interrupted the proceedings, loudly proclaiming that he was the kind of England and Rome. The jury acquitted him by reason of insanity after only five minutes of deliberation, and he spent the rest of his life -- 26 years -- in an asylum.

: Daniel Sickles (acquitted, 1859)

In 1859, U.S. Congressman Daniel Sickles was charged with murder after he shot and killed U.S. District Attorney Phillip Barton Key in broad daylight, within full view of the White House. Key -- who was the son of Francis Scott Key, author of The Star Spangled Banner -- had been having a notorious and conspicuous affair with Sickle's wife. At his sensational and highly publicized trial, Sickle's lawyer argued that he committed the murder in a state of temporary insanity, brought on by the enraging knowledge that Key was sleeping with his wife. The all-male jury accepted this argument, and Sickles was acquitted. He later served as a major-general in the Civil War, and received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service after he lost his leg at Gettysburg.

: John Schrank (institutionalized for life, 1912)

New York bartender John Schrank shot Teddy Roosevelt at close range in Milwaukee, Wis., where the former president was campaigning for a second term. The bullet hit Roosevelt in the chest, piercing a metal eyeglasses case and a 50-page copy of the campaign speech he was carrying in his pocket. Defying his doctor's orders, Roosevelt insisted on delivering the speech as scheduled before going to the hospital. The bullet had lodged 3 inches inside his chest, but no vital organs were injured. He died several years later with the bullet still in his chest.

Schrank was immediately arrested, and offered no reason for the attempted assassination. Later accounts reported that he said William McKinley had appeared to him in a dream and told him to kill Roosevelt. Before his trial began, a panel of doctors determined that Schrank was insane, and he was sentenced by a judge to life in an asylum.

: Ezra Pound (declared incompetent, 1946)

American poet Ezra Pound avoided being tried for treason when he was found incompetent to stand trial. The treason charges were based on his pro-Fascist broadcasts over Italian radio during World War II. Paid by the Italian government, he broadcast anti-American, anti-Semitic diatribes over the airwaves of Rome Radio on and off between 1941 and 1943, praising Mussolini and Hitler and referring to President Roosevelt as "that Jew in the White House." He was indicted for treason by the U.S. government, and after Mussolini's death, he was arrested and returned to the United States for trial.

He was declared unfit for trial and committed to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a federal asylum, for the next 12 years. The controversial decision sparked years of criticism. Many literary historians believe that Pound was not at all insane, and that the insanity argument was concocted by his lawyer and accepted by the court in order to spare America the political embarrassment of having to execute one of its most famous literary figures. Others believe that he was truly mentally ill, and that his political rantings were a symptom of manic depression or a similar disorder.

In 1958, the treason charges were dropped, and Pound was released from the institution. Shortly after his release, he returned to Italy, where he remained until his death in Venice in 1972.

: David Berkowitz, a.k.a. "Son of Sam" (pled guilty, 1978)

Over 13 months between 1976 and 1977, 24-year-old David Berkowitz went on a killing spree in New York City that left six people dead and seven injured. At his arrest, he confessed to the murders, describing them in such detail as to leave no doubt that he was the killer. During this confession, he described his motivation for the killings: He was acting on the orders of his neighbor, Sam Carr, which were conveyed to him though the barking of Carr's demonic black dog.

Despite a psychiatric report that found him paranoid and delusional, the court deemed him fit to stand trial. Ignoring his lawyers' advice that he go to trial and mount an insanity defense, Berkowitz pled guilty to the murders. He was sentenced to 365 years in prison without the possibility of parole. He ordered his lawyers not to appeal the sentence.

From prison, years after the trial, Berkowitz said that he had fabricated the stories about the dog. There is still debate in psychiatric and legal circles over whether he was criminally insane.

: John Wayne Gacy (convicted, 1980)

John Wayne Gacy was arrested in December 1978, suspected of being involved with the disappearance of a 15-year-old boy. The resulting police investigation unearthed the skeletons of over 30 youths from a crawl space beneath Gacy's home. Some of Gacy's victims had managed to escape, and at his trial they testified that Gacy had lured high school students and male prostitutes to his home, where he would rape and torture them. Gacy admitted the killings, but pled insanity. The jury rejected the plea, and Gacy was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed in 1994.

: John Hinckley (acquitted, 1982)

In 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a secret service agent, a Washington police officer, and Reagan's press secretary, James Brady. Hinckley claimed that he was trying to impress the actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was infatuated. In what was arguably the most influential insanity-defense case of the century, a jury acquitted him of 13 assault, murder, and weapons counts, finding him not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C., where he remains today.

After the Hinckley verdict, there was an immediate public outcry against what many perceived to be a loophole in the justice system that allowed an obviously guilty man to escape punishment. There were widespread calls for the abolishment, or at least the substantial revision, of the insanity-plea laws. In response to the verdict more than 30 states changed their laws to make it more difficult for defendants to succeed in an insanity defense, and Congress passed the Insanity Defense Reform Act, which tightened federal standards.

: Kenneth Bianchi, a.k.a. "The Hillside Strangler" (pled guilty, 1983)

In 1977 and 1978, Kenneth Bianchi and his cousin Anthony Buono went on a murder spree, raping and killing 10 girls and women and leaving their bodies in the hills outside Los Angeles. After the 10th murder, Bianchi moved to Bellingham, Wash., where he raped and killed two more women -- a coworker and her friend, whom he lured to a secluded house. After his arrest, he confessed to all the murders.

While in custody, Bianchi feigned mental illness, in the hopes of raising an insanity defense. He claimed to have multiple-personality disorder, and that he had no memory of the murders because they were committed by one of his "alters." Extensive examination under hypnosis, however, produced strong evidence that he was faking. Forensic psychiatrist Martin Orne concluded that Bianchi's stories of the alternate personalities were inconsistent with one another, and with other reported cases of multiple-personality disorder. Bianchi eventually withdrew the insanity claim and pled guilty of the Washington murders, agreeing to testify against his cousin in exchange for avoiding the death penalty in the Los Angeles case.

The Los Angeles trial began in 1981 and stretched on for two years. Bianchi pled guilty to five of the California murders; Buono was convicted of nine of the 10. Bianchi is serving a life sentence in Washington; Buono died in prison in California in September 2002.

: Jeffrey Dahmer (convicted, 1992)

In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted of the murder of 15 young men, whose mutilated, cannibalized bodies had been found in his Milwaukee apartment. Dahmer reportedly had sex with the corpses of some of his victims, attempted to perform crude lobotomies on others while they were still alive, and stored body parts in his refrigerator to be eaten later. At trial, he admitted the killings, but pled not guilty by reason of insanity. His plea was rejected, and the jury found Dahmer to be legally sane at the time of the murders. He was sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences without chance of parole.

The Dahmer conviction was hailed by many as the death of the insanity defense, and a counterpoint to the Hinckley acquittal. If such a clearly deranged killer could not be found legally insane, it seemed unlikely that the defense would ever be successful, at least in a high profile case involving a violent crime. Dahmer was killed in prison by another inmate in 1994.

: John du Pont (convicted, 1997)

Described as "the wealthiest murder defendant in the history of the United States," multimillionaire John du Pont was found guilty but mentally ill in his trial for the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz. Du Pont, heir to a chemical company fortune, was an avid wrestling fan; he had given substantial donations to the U.S. Olympic team, and provided training facilities and housing for wrestlers on his Pennsylvania estate. David Schultz, with his family, had been living and training on the estate. In January 1996, du Pont had driven to Schultz's house on the estate and shot him dead in the driveway, in front of his wife. Du Pont then retreated to his mansion, where he remained holed up for two days, negotiating with the police. He was captured when he came outside to fix his heater, after police had turned off the electricity in his house.

At trial, psychiatric witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution agreed that du Pont was mentally ill. Defense experts testified that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and had come to believe that Schultz was part of an international conspiracy to kill him. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, testifying for the prosecution, countered that the murder was unrelated to his illness.

The jury rejected the insanity defense and convicted du Pont of third degree murder. The guilty but mentally ill verdict meant that du Pont would serve his entire sentence -- from 13 to 30 years -- in prison, but that he would be able to receive psychiatric treatment during his incarceration. In June 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of his conviction, which argued that the guilty but mentally ill verdict violated du Pont's rights to due process and equal protection, and that his imprisonment constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

: Andrew Goldstein (convicted, 2000)

Andrew Goldstein was a diagnosed schizophrenic who had been released from a psychiatric hospital just weeks before he killed 32-year-old Kendra Webdale by pushing her in front of a New York subway train in January 1999. Goldstein had begun suffering delusions years earlier, and in 1989 was diagnosed as schizophrenic when he was admitted to a psychiatric ward after pushing his mother into a wall.

In December 1992, Goldstein had committed himself to a state psychiatric hospital in New York. Although he displayed extremely delusional and violent behavior while in the hospital, he was transferred to a group home after eight months. By 1996, he was living on his own in New York. Over the next three years, he would repeatedly end up in hospital emergency rooms, acting delusional and asking for help. In November 1999, Goldstein again committed himself, this time to a hospital in Harlem. He told intake personnel that he wanted to be hospitalized because of "severe schizophrenia." Hospital records from his stay describe him as "thought-disordered," "delusional," and "psychotic." However, after less than a month, just days after hospital records noted that he "remain[ed] delusional," Goldstein was released from the hospital with a referral for out-patient therapy. Three weeks later, he pushed Kendra Webdale under the train.

Goldstein's first trial ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked. A second jury rejected Goldstein's insanity defense plea and convicted him of second-degree murder after just 90 minutes of deliberation. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

In response to the Goldstein case, the New York legislature enacted and "outpatient commitment" statute -- known as" Kendra's Law" -- which authorizes courts to force mentally ill people living in the community to take medication.

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