The Insanity Defense
"Never pray for justice, because you might get some"
Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist.
On January 14, 1941, two brothers, Anthony, 35, and William Esposito, 28, held up a payroll carrier for a linen company located at 34th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan. They shot and killed the office manager of the firm without warning as he rode in an elevator. When the brothers reached the street, they were confronted by Police Officer Edward Maher. During a foot chase down 5th Avenue, a gunfight ensued which sent hundreds of pedestrians ducking for cover. The brave officer managed to bring down William with a shot to the leg. When the cop went to check on William, the wounded man suddenly turned over and shot Officer Maher several times, killing him instantly. Several other people were wounded in the on-going battle. Both brothers were captured after pedestrians and a passing cab driver subdued them.
When they reached trial in May of 1941, the Esposito brothers based their defense on insanity pleas. The death penalty was a very real threat during that period. Unlike today, defendants were sentenced to death routinely and often the sentences were carried out without delay. It was also common for several convicts to go to the chair for the same murder. In court, the Espositos began a campaign of bizarre behavior to convince the court they were insane. They banged their heads on the defense table until they bled. They made animal sounds and howled like wolves. They ate bits of paper and anything else that was in front of them. While the jury was present in the room, they barked like dogs and cried uncontrollably. They drooled on the table and walked into the courtroom like apes. The New York press called them "The Mad Dogs." At the end of the trial, Judge John Fresci said that the laws should be enacted to keep people like the Espositos out of the courtroom. But even all their hysterics could not persuade the court they were anything but vicious criminals. On May 1, 1941, after a jury deliberated for just one minute, a trial record that still stands today, William and Anthony Esposito were found guilty of Murder in the 1st Degree and sentenced to die in Sing Sing's electric chair. But the "Mad Dogs" still weren't finished.
On May 7, 1941, the Espositos were transported to Sing Sing prison by New York City Police in a commuter train from Grand Central Station. When they arrived in the Village of Ossining, a local cab picked up the brothers and the police to take them over to the prison reception area. As the car approached the front gates, Anthony suddenly grabbed the steering wheel of the police unit and attempted to crash the car. A violent brawl erupted between the "Mad Dogs" and the police. Anthony viciously bit the hand of the driver as he tried to get control of the car. William tried to grab a detective's holstered gun. The police pulled out their blackjacks and beat the brothers into submission. They were dragged out of the car cursing and screaming. William continued to fight even as he was prone on the sidewalk. He was beaten unconscious and both brothers were later carried into Sing Sing (McNulty, p.4). While on Death Row, the Espositos continued their campaign to convince authorities they were crazy. They moaned in their cells and spoke gibberish to the guards. For 10 months they engaged in hunger strikes and ultimately refused to eat any food whatsoever. Governor Herbert Lehman appointed a commission to investigate the matter. It was found that the Esposito family arrived in America from Italy in 1909. Two other brothers were already in prison and two sisters also had arrest records. Their father was an ex-con who had died years before. Their mother had been arrested several times and the children were raised to hate the cops and the law. Governor Lehman refused to grant clemency.
In the end, William and Anthony Esposito laid in their cots all day long, eating nothing and groaning throughout the day and night. Neither of the brothers weighed more than 80 pounds. On March 12, 1942, they were carried to the electric chair unconscious, already near death, and immediately executed. The "Mad Dog" Espositos were violent criminals whose behavior shocked the public. But never did their actions constitute legal insanity.
The Espositos suffered the ultimate penalty for their crime. But their attempt at hiding behind the insanity plea failed. For those that succeed, there is a public perception that a defendant walks out of the courtroom a free individual. Since such defendants are found "not guilty," it may not be illogical to believe that they face no prison terms. But, again, that is rarely, if ever, the reality. Most states require that a defendant be committed to a mental institution for a period of at least one year. And the most severely disturbed inmates may never get out of the institution. The majority of states have no set limit on the amount of time convicted defendants may spend in confinement as long as they meet the criteria that sent them to the facility initially. A similar fate may await those ruled incompetent to stand trial. At the infamous Matteawan State Hospital for the Insane in New York, a census was taken of 1,062 patients in the year 1965. It was found that 208 were being held from 20 to an incredible 64 years (Maeder, 1985, p. 119). Some of those were never convicted of any crime whatsoever. Through a combination of antiquated laws, neglect and retribution, some prisoners spent their entire lives in institutions, far longer than they would have spent in jail had they actually been convicted of a criminal offense (Maeder, 1985, p. 118). But it simply seems to be part of the historical pattern of abandonment and fear that society has practiced against the mentally ill for centuries.