Insanity defense: Six notorious cases when it worked
One of the central questions in the case of accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes involves whether his attorneys will employ the insanity defense. The legal tactic has been used many times in mass slayings and other shocking crimes, and not always effectively: Note that serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer both claimed insanity but were convicted anyway. But the plea has succeeded in a number of high-profile instances — among them the following six, two of which have Colorado ties, including one trial that ended just a year ago. Check them out below.
History recalls Sickles as a politician, a general for the Union forces and a diplomat. But today, he's perhaps best remembered as the father of the temporary insanity defense.
Sickles was embroiled in numerous kerfuffles during his time in public life — such as when he had his wrist slapped by legislators for inviting a prostitute named Fanny White into the New York State Assembly. (He supposedly introduced Fanny to Queen Victoria, too.) But this was nothing compared to the scandal that followed his shooting of Philip Barton Key II, son of "Star Spangled Banner" writer Francis Scott Key, in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, in 1859. At the time, he was a U.S. Congressman.
The dead man was a prominent Washington, D.C. figure, having served as district attorney. But Sickles, who surrendered to the U.S. Attorney General after the shooting and confessed to the crime, appears to have had much more powerful political pals, including President James Buchanan and Edwin Stanton, who would become President Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War. And he'd need them, since his claim that he had been driven temporarily insane by his wife's infidelity was untested at the time.
But it worked. Sickles was acquitted of the murder, with the verdict allowing him to remain in Congress. Really.
Steven Steinberg became the subject of the book Death of a Jewish American Princess, seen above, thanks to a terrible thing he did while living in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1981: He stabbed his wife, Elena, 26 times with a kitchen knife.
Steinberg didn't deny killing Elena. But he claimed to have done so while sleepwalking, which technically meant he wasn't in his right mind at the time. The closest corollary to this assertion was the insanity defense.
What happened? Here's an excerpt from "A Killer Sleep Disorder," a 1998 article published by the Phoenix New Times, one of Westword's sister papers:
At trial, his attorney called witnesses to testify that Steinberg may have been sleepwalking or in a short-lived "dissociative" mental state when he stabbed his wife.
Defense attorney Bob Hirsh alleged that Steinberg's "Jewish American Princess" wife had driven him mad with nagging and spending too much money. A jury found Steinberg not guilty on the grounds that he was temporarily insane when he'd killed her. Because he was deemed "sane" at the time of his acquittal, Steinberg walked out of court a free man.
Afterward, Arizona law was changed, with judges directed to impose "guilty but insane" sentences in cases that would have been dealt with under the previous temporary insanity standard. Once the new statute was enacted, anyone found guilty but insane would have to go to a mental institution before getting the chance to hit the streets.
Eastwood had a history of mental problems. After an arrest in 2002, for example, he was placed on a mental health hold because he thought voices were coming from a Nielsen ratings box attached to his television — and he continued to hear such voices in the years that followed. He was also reportedly afraid imaginary creatures were stealing food from his stomach.
Against this backdrop, Eastwood left the Hudson home he shared with his dad around midday on February 23, 2010, and drove to Deer Creek Middle School, a short distance from Columbine High School, where he opened fire on students as school was being dismissed, seriously injuring two before he was tackled by a math teacher, Dr. David Benke, who held him down until authorities arrived.
While in custody, Eastwood exhibited plenty of bizarre behavior — like picking at his skin in an attempt to remove the "transforming forces" from his body.
Eastwood entered a not-guilty-by-insanity plea the following July, and doctors diagnosed him as a schizophrenic whose actions were dictated by delusions and audio hallucinations. And while prosecutors made it clear they thought Eastwood had acted deliberately on that February day, the jury disagreed. In October 2011, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, after which he was confined to a state mental hospital.
Continue to read more notorious examples of when the insanity defense worked.Next Page
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.