Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Insanity Defense

M'Naghten Rules

"Integrity has no need of rules"
Albert Camus (1913-1960) French philosopher and novelist.

In 1843, Daniel M'Naghten, a Scottish woodcutter, shot and killed Edward Drummond, secretary to England's Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in London. He acted under the belief that he was actually shooting the Prime Minister because M'Naghten believed there was a plot against him. When M'Naghten reached trial, his attorneys pleaded that he should be acquitted because he was obviously insane and did not understand what he was doing. M'Naghten was later acquitted of the crime. Later that same year, the House of Lords issued the following ruling:

"To establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must clearly be proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing was wrong" (Melton, 1997, p. 191).

This edict became know as the M'Naghten Rule and for over a century, this was the standard for the insanity defense. As for Daniel M'Naghten, after his acquittal, he was sent to Bedlam and other institutions where he languished in the shadow world of the insane for several decades until his death in 1863.

The late 19th century was a time when scientific ideas were rampant. This explosion of science was partly brought on by the publication in 1859 of one of the most influential books ever written, The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The Darwinian concepts of survival of the fittest, natural selection and hereditary traits revolutionized biological science and were applied to many other disciplines. Ideas were evolving rapidly during this era in every medical, scientific and psychological field. Things were changing quickly in the legal profession as well. Dedicated lawyers and judges searched for workable solutions to the controversies that plagued the nations courts. The confusing ideas about mental diseases and the complexities of the human mind did not lend themselves well to the rigid dimensions of codified law. A glaring example of that confusion was the murder trial of Charles Guiteau in 1881, assassin of President James Garfield.

President James Garfield (CORBIS)
President James Garfield

Guiteau was an erratic individual who suffered from some type of mental disorder, most probably paranoia. He had delusions that he should be appointed as Ambassador to France because he wrote a speech for President Garfield which he imagined helped get Garfield elected in 1880. The speech, in fact, was never used but Guiteau became despondent and bitter over this "betrayal" and plotted to get revenge against Garfield. After stalking the President for almost a month, he managed to shoot Garfield in the back at a Washington D.C. train station. The President was not killed outright however. He suffered with great pain for almost 3 months before he finally died on the night of September 19, 1881.

Charles Guiteau (CORBIS)
Charles Guiteau

Guiteau's trial was a sensation, not only because of the nature of his crime but his unusual outbursts and behavior in court attracted widespread attention. Guiteau testified in his own behalf and stated: "I want to say right here in reference to protection, that the Deity himself will protect me, that He has used all these soldiers, and these experts, and this honorable court, and these counsel, to serve Him and protect me" (Knappman, 1994, p. 190). He went on to tell the court that he shot the President because God told him that Garfield was destroying the Republican party and he must die to save the Democratic party. But the prosecutor, U.S Attorney Wayne Davidge told the jurors: "It is very hard to conceive of the individual with any degree of intelligence at all, incapable of comprehending that the head of a great constitutional republic is not to be shot down like a dog" (Knappman, 1994, p. 190). Charles Guiteau was found guilty of murder on January 13, 1882. Upon hearing the verdict Guiteau jumped to his feet and screamed "You are all low, consummate jackasses!" (Knappman, 1994 p.190). After reciting an incoherent poem in a child's voice on the gallows, Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882. Although there was a strong public sentiment to punish Giuteau, despite his severe mental problems, his case underlined the need for change on how the courts dealt with the issue of insanity.

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