The Murder Charge and the Insanity Defense
Posted on Thursday, February 16, 2006 @ 00:00:00 EST
Topic: Modern Moral Issues
Modern Moral IssuesSam writes in response to the previous discussion about insanity and demon possession. He tells us that Daniel E. Sickles, the product of the Tammany Hall Democrat political machine in New York City, become a Union general in the Civil War, but he holds the dubious distinction of being the first man acquitted of a murder charge on the grounds of temporary insanity.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law tells us that an insanity defense is based on the theory that most people can choose to follow the law; but a few select persons cannot be held accountable because mental disease or disability deprives them of the ability to make a rational voluntary choice. Such individuals need special treatment as opposed to prison; punishment is not likely to deter future antisocial conduct of these mentally diseased individuals.

So lets take a look at what Sam tells us and then a little more about the insanity defense.


Daniel E. Sickles, a congressman, shot down his young wifeís lover, Philip Barton Key (son of Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner), in Lafayette Park, Washington, DC, across the street from both Sickles' home and the White House. Sicklesí defense attorney was Edwin M. Stanton, who later served as Lincolnís Secretary of War.

Sickles had strong public support during his trial. But his popularity plummeted when, after his acquittal, he publicly forgave his wife. That ended his political career, but Sickles wrangled a military appointment from his former political pals as a chance for a new start. As a brigadier general of US volunteers, Sickles was often absent from his command, spending time in Washington seeking advancement. Sickles had a long reputation as a drinker and womanizer and his brigade was considered a rowdy bunch.

Sickles next achieved fame on the second day of the battle of Gettysburg when without orders he advanced from his assigned position on Cemetary Ridge out into the Peach Orchard ahead of the rest of the Union forces because he did not like the position he had been commanded to defend. As a result, his unit was badly mauled in the Confederate attack, and an exploding shell took off Sicklesí leg. If not for his wound, Sickles probably would have been court-martialed. Instead, he and his political supporters claimed that, by making his move, Sickles and his command had absorbed and redirected the attack that otherwise might have broken the Union line. Some 30 years later, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Meanwhile, Sickles donated his amputated leg to an army medical museum where it was placed on display. He used to bring young women to the museum to see it.

Sickles was appointed by President Grant as U.S. minister to Spain where he added to his reputation as a womanizer. He served another term in Congress in the 1890s and was chairman of the New York State Monuments Commission for 26 years until forced out by a financial scandal.

As far back as ancient Rome, legal codes distinguished between those who were lunatics and not accountable and those who were sane and responsible. For further information about the history of this defense check out the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law article cited above.

This article comes from Alvin H. Franzmeier