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Assassin On Trial
A century ago a President’s murderer went on trial for the first time in our history. The issues raised then continue to trouble us.
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
The rest of the country seemed satisfied with the trial and its outcome. An editorial in the Washington Star mirrored the national mood: “Let us drop him, now. Guiteau, we mean. His attorneys have done their best by him; counsel for government have done theirs; the Judge did his, and the newspapers have done theirs. The miserable wretch has had a fair trial, and a great deal more notice and consideration than he deserved. ”
Even from the perspective of a century, it would appear that if Guiteau was a victim, it was simply of the primitive state of psychiatry in 1881. Given the M’Naghten Rule then in vogue, it would have been almost impossible for a jury to acquit a man who committed an assassination in expectation of increasing sales for his book and who admitted that an insanity plea was an integral part of his planning. There was no railroading of Charles Guiteau. So strong was the case against him, in terms of the law of his day, that not a jury in the land could have voted for acquittal.