Many Americans are furious that the courts are accepting an insanity plea submitted by the defense attorney for Aurora shooter James Holmes. Holmes is now being taken to the Colorado Mental Health Institute for evaluation and will return to jail on August 2. His lawyers will have to prove that Holmes is, indeed, mentally unstable and that psychiatric problems motivated his shooting spree in the Aurora movie theater last summer. While many argue that Holmes should be found guilty, regardless of his mental state, others find an insanity plea laughable. One Colorado citizen wrote a letter to the Denver Post, saying that the insanity defense is overused and that judging a murder case on psychiatric grounds is “asinine.” Despite the opinion of this man and other like-minded thinkers, the insanity plea is a time-tested and often effective legal defense. Below are five instances of the insanity plea that set a precedent for this one:
Just to show how far back the insanity plea has been used, we’ll start with the case of Richard Lawrence in 1835. Lawrence was accused of attempting to assassinate President Andrew Jackson. Incidentally, he was the first person ever to be suspected of this crime. His lawyer argued that he was delusional, believing he was heir to the throne of England and that the president was keeping a massive fortune from him which would allow him to return home and claim the crown. His lawyer’s arguments were helped by Lawrence’s frequent interjections during the trial when he would shout out his claim to the throne. After only five minutes of discussion, the jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity, and Lawrence spent the rest of his life in an asylum.
Following on Lawrence’s heels, John Schrank was accused of attempting to assassinate President Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Schrank shot Roosevelt at close range, though the bullet missed all major organs. Upon his arrest, Schrank offered no explanation for the attempted assassination. Later, however, he claimed that William McKinley told him to do it in a dream. Before a trial could even take place, doctors found him insane, and like Richard Lawrence, Schrank was sent to an asylum for life.
For some reason, presidential assassinations seem to be a theme among the mentally unstable. In 1982, John Hinckley was charged with the attempted assassination of President Ronald Regan. He claimed he did it to impress actress Jodie Foster. He was acquitted by reason of insanity and sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane, where he remains today. After Hinckley’s trial, there was a public outcry. Many felt that Hinckley had avoided a sentence of guilt because of a loophole. In response, several states changed their laws to make an insanity plea much more difficult to obtain.
Moving into recent years, there is the case of Lorena Bobbitt, accused of mutilating her husband when she cut off his penis with a kitchen knife in 1993. According to her lawyer, Bobbitt, who already dealt with mental health issues, suffered years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband. One night, after he raped her, she snapped and suffered a period of “temporary insanity.” In 1994, a jury acquitted her in what many saw as a triumph of justice for battered women in the United States.
Many remember the case of Andrea Yates, a Houston mother accused of drowning all five of her children in the bathtub. In her 2002 trial, her lawyers argued that she suffered severe postpartum depression and had delusions that Satan was living inside her; she admitted she had killed her children because she was trying to “save them from hell.” The jury took 12 hours to make a decision but eventually found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She is still being treated in a mental health hospital.
Will James Holmes’ insanity plea be successful? In all honesty, probably not. In recent years, most people using the insanity defense have been convicted, and the few who have been acquitted were mostly women. Still, in Holmes’ case, this may have been the only possible defense, and there is certainly evidence of mental instability. Whether it is enough to persuade a jury in this emotionally charged case remains to be seen.