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.
Daniel Sickles 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 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.

Bruco Eastwood 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. John Hinckley Jr. Our other Colorado connection, Hinckley was living in Evergreen in 1981 when he suddenly became one of the most infamous figures in the country. After an extended stay at the Golden Hours Motel on West Colfax, and regular meals at the McDonald's across the street, Hinckley traveled to Washington, D.C., and on March 30 of that year, he shot President Ronald Reagan as he was leaving the Hilton Hotel, where he'd addressed a labor conference.

Hinckley also injured a police officer, a Secret Service agent and Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, who was severely wounded but survived to become the namesake of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

When he went to trial in 1982, Hinckley's legal team claimed that he had been insane when he'd opened fire. According to his attorneys, he had become obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, and specifically with her role as a child prostitute in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver. The movie revolved around Travis Bickle (portrayed by Robert De Niro), who planned to assassinate a politician. Bickle didn't do so in the end, yet Hinckley is said to have decided that the best way to impress Foster would be to kill the president.

When Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, several states abolished the death penalty, and others rewrote their laws. But while the man behind the gun became the symbol of the debate over the issue, he couldn't be an active participant. He remains institutionalized to this day, although courts have allowed him to take occasional visits outside the hospital where he's otherwise confined in order to visit family.

Lorena Bobbitt Lorena Bobbitt and her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, became celebrities of the strangest sort just shy of twenty years ago, owing to a series of startling events that took place on June 23, 1993.

On that evening, when John returned to the Manassas, Virginia apartment the couple shared, he was reportedly drunk, but apparently not so sloshed that he couldn't manage to rape his wife — although he was subsequently acquitted of this crime.

Afterward, Lorena rose from their bed and headed to the kitchen, ostensibly to get a drink of water. While there, however, she grabbed a knife and brought it back to their bedroom — where she took hold of her sleeping husband's penis and cut off almost half of it.

Bobbitt then split, taking the bloody penis portion with her. She drove for a while, then tossed it into a field; it was later found, packed in ice and rushed to a hospital, where it was reattached to John during an operation said to have taken more than nine hours. And the member in question apparently still worked afterward, since John had a brief career as a porn actor in future years. His magnum opus? Frankenpenis.

At trial, Lorena's attorneys detailed a long history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, including an assertion that he'd forced her to have an abortion. And while prosecutors insisted that she had known what she was doing when she took a blade to John's manhood, the jury ultimately accepted the argument that she snapped due to the alleged rape and previous mistreatment and ruled her not guilty by reason of insanity. She spent 45 days being evaluated at a state hospital, after which she was released.

Ed Gein Gein was a role model of sorts, inspiring in whole or in part some of the most frightening figures in film history, including Norman Bates from Psycho, Leatherface from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. How? By digging up bodies from graveyards near his Plainfield, Wisconsin home and doing terrible things with the remains — like making a belt from women's nipples, using a pair of lips as a draw string on a window blind, and constructing a lampshade from facial skin.

And also by killing people.

Gein ultimately confessed to murdering two women — Mary Hogan in 1954 and Bernice Worden in 1957. After Worden's body was found strung up as if she was a deer, Gein was arrested, but he was subsequently found to be criminally insane and locked up in a mental health facility.

Eleven years later, authorities tried again, putting Gein on trial for Worden's murder. He was found guilty, but he was ordered to spend his life sentence at a mental hospital. He died in 1984, but his horrifying influence continues to linger to this day.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts