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The President and the Lunatic
After assassinating President Garfield, a lunatic gunman mounted an insanity defense, which the jury--and the nation--rejected despite compelling evidence to the contrary
Spring 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 1
At noon on June 30, Guiteau mounted the scaffold in the same jail where he had been held since the shooting. Outside hundreds mingled, buying lemonade and cake. In the jail’s courtyard, nearly 250 people, some having paid $300 for the privilege, gazed at the gallows. Guiteau cast his eyes over them and chanted: “I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad / I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad.”
When he had finished, a black hood was put over his head. He shouted, “Glory, ready, go!” and fell through the trap.
Bitter dispute over “the assassin Guiteau” lingered, but the autopsy shifted the debate. Guiteau’s brain showed signs of syphilitic paresis, asymmetry of the right and left hemispheres, and a chronic degeneration of gray matter. By the 1890s several psychiatric journals that had once challenged his insanity had changed their opinions. Come the century of Freud, and the definition of insanity broadened. In 1912 a deranged drifter who shot Theodore Roosevelt was institutionalized without trial. By the 1920s, psychiatrists agreed that Charles Guiteau had been mad, his trial a travesty, his execution shocking.
In 1982, a century after Guiteau’s execution, Ronald Reagan’s assailant, John Hinckley Jr., was held “not guilty” by reason of insanity, a verdict that brought nationwide outrage and a tightening of insanity defense laws. Yet history’s ultimate verdict on Charles Guiteau remains unchanged. Had he shot a common man, he would have been institutionalized after no more than a hearing. And had President Garfield lived, his assailant would have also been spared as being, pure and simple, a lunatic.
The insanity defense remains a delicate issue in American jurisprudence. Since Guiteau, numerous legal terms have arisen to qualify the plea. Did the defendant demonstrate “diminished capacity,” or “criminal responsibility”? Several states have devised a compromise verdict: “guilty but mentally insane.” Still, the struggle between morals and mental illness, between the law and psychiatry, continues.
Earlier this year, when alleged Tucson assailant Jared Lee Loughner pleaded not guilty to wounding Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killing six others, pundits broached the possibility that he might be freed on an insanity plea. Legal experts agreed that, given the assassination attempt’s high profile and the defendant’s premeditation, an insanity defense would be a long shot. But the outrage expressed by many showed that America’s staunch insistence on criminal responsibility did not die with the Victorian age. Is the insanity plea “a dodge” or an act of mercy? The jury is still out.