The insanity defense might be a popular trope in fiction, but it is actually used in less than one percent of court cases and has only a 25 percent success rate. Some US states don’t even allow it anymore, but despite all that, it has worked on occasion, as you are about to see.
To be clear, we are not saying these people faked their mental illnesses or that they deserved to go to prison. Just that they all avoided prison or even death sentences because they were certified too insane to be responsible for their actions or, in some cases, even to stand trial.
10. Roderick Maclean
Queen Victoria was a real die-hard, in the truest sense of the word, having survived no fewer than eight attempts on her life during her long reign. By far, the most bizarre incident came courtesy of Roderick Maclean, who wanted to kill the queen because she didn’t like his poetry.
On March 2, 1882, the Royal Train arrived at Windsor rail station and Maclean was one of the many spectators waiting to see the queen. But he wanted to do a bit more than to shoot a glance her way. As Victoria was making her way across the platform to a waiting carriage, Maclean pulled out a revolver and fired at her. The first shot missed and two Eton schoolboys tackled the gunman before he was able to fire again.
Maclean stood accused of high treason, the most serious charge in the land which carried with it a death sentence. However, he had already been medically certified insane before the assassination attempt. Therefore, the jury only needed a few minutes of deliberation to find him “not guilty, but insane.”
Roderick Maclean had evaded a date with the hangman’s noose, although he spent the rest of his life at Broadmoor Asylum. A short while later, the Trial of Lunatics Act 1883 was passed by Parliament, which changed the verdict for future similar cases to “guilty, but insane.”
9. Jeffrey Arenburg
In 1995, Canadian hockey fans were left stunned when they found out that former NHL player Brian Smith had been killed while leaving the CJOH television station in Ottawa where he worked as a sports anchor. The killer was Jeffrey Arenburg, a man with paranoid schizophrenia who believed that broadcast stations were transmitting thoughts into his head. Arenburg had a history of threatening violence against these stations, having previously been convicted for attacking a radio employee.
On August 1, 1995, he went to the CJOH TV station armed with a 22-caliber rifle. He had no grudge against Smith personally, Arenburg later admitted as much, but the sportscaster was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The gunman recognized Smith as he was leaving the building and shot him in the head.
Arenburg was charged with first-degree murder but was found “not criminally responsible” due to his mental state and placed in a mental care facility where he spent the next decade of his life before being released.
8. George Roden
Everyone remembers the bloody siege at Waco, Texas, in 1993 when the ATF, FBI, and Texas law enforcement officers surrounded the compound of the Branch Davidians sect led by David Koresh. What many people might not know is that Koresh got the job of cult leader by usurping the previous guy, George Roden.
Roden was the son of the man who founded the Branch Davidians, Benjamin Roden. He lost his position as leader in 1987 following a shootout with Koresh and his followers. He then lost legal ownership of the property due to unpaid taxes which the Branch Davidians paid off themselves, who then named Koresh their new head honcho.
Two years later, Roden murdered his roommate, a man named Wayman Dale Adair, ostensibly because he believed that Adair had been sent there by Koresh to kill him. Roden was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent the final years of his life in several mental hospitals. In 1998, Roden escaped from the Big Spring State Hospital in Texas but was found by the side of the road a few days later, likely dead of a heart attack.
7. James Hadfield
Just to preempt a few comments, we are not talking about James Hetfield, lead singer of Metallica, but James Hadfield, the guy who tried to kill King George III in 1800.
A former dragoon in the British Army, Hadfield had sustained multiple head injuries while fighting in the War of the First Coalition against France. After that, he began suffering from various delusions, including that he was the true King George, that he was the biblical character Adam, or that he was even the “Supreme Being.” As to why he wanted the king dead, Hadfield believed that his own death would save the world, but that it could not be done by his own hand. Therefore, killing the king would ensure a swift meeting with the executioner.
His “foolproof” plan failed on two counts. First, he didn’t kill the king. On May 15, 1800, George III attended a show at the Theater Royal. Hadfield shot at him in the royal box but missed and was quickly tackled by the crowd. Second, he was not sentenced to death. Hadfield was defended by one of the best lawyers in all the land, Thomas Erskine, future Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, who successfully used the insanity defense for his client and got him a permanent stay at Bedlam.
6. Izola Curry
Ten years before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray, the civil rights activist survived another attempt on his life at the hands of a woman named Izola Curry.
And yes, we might as well mention the first thing people notice whenever they hear about her – Izola Curry was Black. Her animosity towards Dr. King and the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had nothing to do with race. Instead, she was a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered delusions that King and other civil rights groups all banded against her to cost her jobs and that they were, in her own words, “mixed up with the Communists.”
On September 20, 1958, the 42-year-old Curry attended a book signing by King at Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem and, when she approached him, stabbed the civil rights leader in the chest with a seven-inch letter opener. She also had a gun on her, in case the blade didn’t get it done, but she was tackled to the ground before she could finish the job.
King was rushed to the hospital where doctors saved his life. The tip of the blade was resting on his aorta, and one cough or sneeze could have punctured it and caused him to bleed out. Meanwhile, Izola Curry was found not competent to stand trial and committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
5. Richard Dadd
Most people remember Victorian artist Richard Dadd for his paintings, particularly the ones involving fairies. However, many of those people might not be aware that Dadd did most of his work while incarcerated in two of England’s most notorious mental institutions, Bedlam and Broadmoor.
His problems started in 1842 when the 25-year-old Dadd embarked on a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East. While in Egypt, he suffered a personality change which, at first, was attributed to sunstroke. However, Dadd developed a delusion that he was the son of Osiris and that his actual father must have been some kind of demonic impostor. Back in England, Dadd murdered his father as the two went on a walk together. He tried to flee to France but was arrested in Paris after assaulting another man and sent back to England.
Dadd was certified a “criminal lunatic” and evaded a death sentence. Instead, he was committed to psychiatric hospitals where he spent the next four decades of his life, quietly working on his paintings.
4. Laura Fair
The case of Laura Fair was a highly publicized and controversial one because it had a lot of elements that still shocked 19th-century America whenever they were brought up in public: women’s rights, mental illness, extramarital affairs, and even menstruation.
On the surface, it looked like a standard tale of revenge from a jilted lover. On November 3, 1870, 33-year-old Laura Fair boarded a San Francisco ferry and shot her married paramour, lawyer Alexander Crittenden, after finding out that he intended to leave town with his family instead of divorcing his wife and marrying her as he promised.
Her trial became somewhat of a media sensation. Her defense team claimed that the shooting was the result of temporary insanity caused by a severely painful menstrual cycle. They even brought in medical experts to testify, but the jury was more swayed by the prosecution who portrayed Fair as an immoral woman and a homewrecker. They found her guilty and sentenced to hang.
However, with the help of several prominent suffragettes who took up Laura Fair’s cause, her lawyers successfully appealed and got the first trial thrown out on the grounds that the way the prosecution portrayed their client prejudiced the jury. The second trial went in her favor as the jury found her innocent and Laura Fair became a free woman, one of the few people on this list who did not end up in a mental institution.
3. Daniel Sickles
Daniel Sickles was a Major General in the Civil War, later serving as a member of Congress and an ambassador to Spain. But before all of that, Sickles was also the first American to successfully use the “temporary insanity” defense after he killed his wife’s lover in broad daylight, right across from the White House.
Sickles’ wife Teresa was having an affair with lawyer Philip Barton Key II, the son of Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote the words to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then, on February 27, 1859, Sickles approached Key in Lafayette Square and shot him three times. Key died a short while later while Sickles surrendered peacefully.
The case seemed like a slam dunk. After all, Sickles confessed to the deed and plenty of people saw him do it. However, his top-notch defense team had other ideas. They not only argued that Sickles went temporarily mad upon discovering the affair, but that he acted justified to protect his wife’s honor. As his lawyer put it, “the death of Key was a cheap sacrifice to save one mother from the horrible fate.”
As it turned out, the jury agreed. They returned a verdict of “not guilty” after an hour of deliberation to the raucous cheers of the courtroom, who were now firmly on Sickles’ side.
2. John Hinckley Jr.
John Hinckley Jr. earned worldwide notoriety on March 30, 1981, when he tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. He ended up wounding Reagan and three other men before being restrained and then attacked by onlookers.
The reason for his actions seemed to be an obsession with the movie Taxi Driver, specifically its young star, Jodie Foster. Hinckley started acting like protagonist Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro – talking like him, dressing like him, writing a diary like him, and developing a fascination with guns. He also began stalking Jodie Foster, even moving to New Haven, Connecticut while she was attending Yale. Although he never approached her, Hinckley wrote numerous letters and poems to Foster, but when these failed to make an impression, he decided he needed to do something more drastic – assassinate the president.
During his trial, Hinckley’s only chance was the insanity defense. Both sides argued in their favor. The defense diagnosed him with schizophrenia. The prosecution argued that his actions were clearly premeditated and came from a sound mind.
After much back and forth, the jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity. He was institutionalized for almost 35 years before being released in 2016. His verdict caused a huge uproar in America and brought on the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 which made it much harder for this defense to be used during trials, while some states abolished it altogether.
1. Daniel M’Naghten
We finally arrive at the guy who started it all… at least in modern times – Daniel M’Naghten, a Scottish woodworker who tried to assassinate British Prime Minister Robert Peel in 1843 and ended up killing Peel’s personal secretary, Edward Drummond.
M’Naghten had developed paranoid delusions that he was being persecuted by the Tory Party because he voted for the opposition. His police statement after shooting Drummond said this:
“The Tories in my native city have compelled me to do this. They follow and persecute me wherever I go and have entirely destroyed my peace of mind. They followed me to France, into Scotland, and all over England; in fact, they follow me wherever I go. I cannot sleep nor get no rest from them…. I believe they have driven me into consumption. I am sure I shall never be the man I was. I used to have good health and strength, but I have not now. They have accused me of crimes of which I am not guilty; in fact, they wish to murder me. It can be proved by evidence. That’s all I have to say.”
M’Naghten’s legal team argued that their client had a case of monomania – an insane fixation on a certain issue or person – and that it was so severe that it eradicated his ability to tell right from wrong. The prosecution brought in two doctors of their own, but they also concluded that M’Naghten was insane, and therefore the jury found him to be not guilty by reason of insanity.
This set a legal precedent in British law history and the appearance of the M’Naghten Rule, which stated that, in order for a defendant to use the insanity defense, it must be proved that they were acting under a defect of reason caused by a “disease of the mind” which made them not understand the nature of their actions or that they were wrong.