Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Insanity Defense

'My Life is in Danger'

"A lawyer is one skilled in the circumvention of the law" Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)

Robert Torsney (POLICE)
Robert Torsney

An even more disturbing case than the "Twinkie Defense" took place in New York City in the late 1970s. Officer Robert Torsney, 34, was an eight-year veteran of the N.Y.C.P.D. On Thanksgiving Day, 1976, he was scheduled to work a night tour and was extremely unhappy about being away from his family. In his police memo book, which is a diary of each officer's work day, Torsney wrote "Happy Working Felony Thanksgiving" for that day's entry (Dunning, p. B. 3). That night, he and his partner received a radio dispatch to respond to the Cyprus Houses, a public housing development in East New York, Brooklyn. The job was "man with a gun." They investigated the job without incident and after taking some information from a few tenants; they exited the building onto the street. Outside, the young officers confronted several teen-agers. One of the teen-agers, a Randolph Evans, 15, called out to Torsney and asked if his apartment was searched. Without warning, Torsney suddenly pulled out his service revolver and shot the boy dead from a distance of about two feet. Torsney later testified: "He was talking to me. I don't remember exactly. I remember not being in my body sort of" (Dunning, p. B3). The cop walked over to the police car without saying a word and sat in the front seat. Torsney was later arrested for this cold-blooded killing, which was widely reported in the press (Raftery and Singleton, p.3).

His murder trial began in November of 1977 against a backdrop of racial suspicion and accusations. Torsney was white and Evans was black. Officer Torsney later told a psychiatrist: "I can't say I like back people, but I don't let that affect me. There is a lot of violence down there. My life is in danger" (Winslade, p. 141). One defense witness was Dr. Daniel Schwartz, chief of forensic psychiatry at King's County Medical Center, a familiar witness in New York City's courts. In previous years, he had been appointed to examine David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer and David Chapman, assassin of Beatle John Lennon. Up to that time, Dr. Schwartz testified in well over 100 trials. After interviewing Torsney on 3 occasions, Dr. Schwartz concluded that the officer fired his weapon while he was suffering from a psychomotor seizure, a sort of mini-stroke which leaves no tell-tale signs and may never return again. Dr. Schwartz claimed that Officer Torsney suffered from an extremely rare condition called Automatism of Penfield (Winslade, 1983, p. 141). Apparently, this affliction was so rare that few had ever heard of it before the trial. But Torsney's testimony was in direct conflict with psychiatric opinions of his behavior. His statements in court claimed self-defense. "He (Evans) was still talking and pulling out a silver object which looked like the barrel of a gun" he told the court (Dunning, p. B3). Even so, after just several hours of deliberations, the jury found Officer Torsney not guilty by reason of insanity.

Over the next few years, the New York mental health community struggled with how to deal with Officer Torsney, who was convicted of no crime, showed no signs of being mentally ill and yet was commanded by the courts to remain in a mental hospital to be treated for a disease which didn't exist. After two years of wrangling with the courts, during which Tornsey was often permitted to come and go at will and spend most of his time at home with his family, he became a free man. Justice, at least the way it was defined in this case, had been served.

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