Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Insanity Defense

'You Must Die!'

"If you commit a big crime then you are crazy, and the more heinous the crime, the crazier you must be. Therefore you are not responsible, and nothing is your fault" Peggy Noonan, U.S. writer, newscaster.

Daniel Sickles in uniform (CORBIS)
Daniel Sickles in uniform

Congressman Daniel Sickles saw the man walking in front of his house. The man, whose name was Phillip Barton Key, was a member of Washington D.C.'s social elite and the son of Francis Scott Key, author of The Star Spangled Banner. Sickles watched as Key attempted to call up to a second story window where Sickles' wife slept. Sickles became enraged because he had known for several weeks that Key was sleeping with his wife. And worse, his friends and neighbors knew it too. Consumed by rage, he grabbed two handguns from his bedroom and ran out into the street where several pedestrians were walking. He ran up to Key screaming: "You must die! You must die!" Without provocation, he fired several shots at Key, striking him in the leg and thigh. The men engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle in full view of the White House where President James Buchanan (1856-1860) may have watched the drama unfold from his office window. Sickles managed to fire several more shots. Key fell back against a fence and pled for his life: "Please don't kill me!" Sickles pointed a handgun at the victim's chest and fired point blank at the helpless man. Key staggered away and died a few minutes later. There were at least twelve people who witnessed the killing. It was 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 27, 1859. Congressman Daniel Sickles (D.-NY) was arrested a short time later at the home of a friend and charged with murder. When he appeared in court to face a charge of 1st degree murder, his attorney said that Sickles could not be held responsible because he was driven insane by the knowledge his wife was sleeping with Phillip Key.

Daniel Sickles was a Union Army general who fought for several years in the Civil War. In the following years, he became Ambassador to Spain, the County Sheriff for New York, re-elected to Congress in 1893 and later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. But today, Sickles is remembered mostly for being the U.S. Congressman arrested for murder and one of the first defendants in American history to utilize an insanity defense. After a sensational trial that became the talk of Washington D.C. for weeks during 1859, Sickles was acquitted of murder and walked out of court a free man.

Justice is a difficult concept isn't it? If ten people were asked to supply a definition of justice, chances are, we would get ten different answers. It's not hard to imagine the founding fathers centuries ago, laboring under candlelight, quill in hand, the memory of British repression fresh on their minds, agonizing over the proper way to address the issue of justice in the Bill of Rights. How to balance the authority of the state against the rights of the individual? How to ensure that the courts would maintain their integrity and honor in the dispensation of justice? They were genius these founders, true visionaries whose ideas and concepts expressed in the Constitution have managed to hold together a nation of unequaled diversity and complexity for over 200 years. Through hard times and good times, war and peace, the dream survived: a country where justice is paramount and people are born with rights that even a king can't take away. We are an idealistic people, though we don't like to admit it at times. That explains why there are few aspects of our society that so infuriate the average citizen as the notion of failed justice. And nowhere in our system is justice so challenged, manipulated and abused as when a killer pleads an insanity defense.

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