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3 Famous Cases Where The Insanity Defense Actually Worked

James Holmes, the man who is accused of killing 12 people in a movie theatre in Colorado, plead insanity for his alleged crimes. This is a risky move for the defense, since the insanity plea is only used in less than one percent of all criminal cases, and it is only successful in a small fraction of that one percent.

Despite how rare it is, that doesn’t mean that Holmes has zero chance of getting a jury to believe he was a few chips short of a Pringles can when he terrorized a screening of The Dark Knight Returns with gunfire and smoke bombs. There are a few famous instances where the insanity defense worked — despite the odds.

Here are 3 cases where an insanity plea got the accused off scott-free.

1) Daniel Sickles

The first ever temporary insanity plea in the United States was entered by Daniel Sickles, a 19th century New York politician and General. Before he was accused of committing murder, he had already earned a reputation for scandal. In one instance, he was censured by the New York State Assembly for escorting a prostitute into assembly chambers. 

But all previous scandals were eclipsed the day Sickles shot and murdered Philip Barton Key II across the street from the White House in 1859. The reason? He discovered Key was having an affair with his young wife Teresa Bagioli. Despite the fact he killed a man in broad daylight, the public was sympathetic to the civil servant. When newspapers discovered his motive, they congratulated Sickles for “saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key.” 

During the highly-publicized trial, his lawyers made legal history by arguing that he was driven out of his mind by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity, and therefore could not be held responsible for his actions. The all-male jury took pity on the cuckolded Assemblyman, and acquitted him of the crime.

2) Lorena Bobbitt

Lorena Bobbitt made headlines in 1993 when when she was accused of severing her husband’s penis tossing it out a car window. Everyone in America wanted to know the same thing: what would drive a person to do such a thing?

According to Bobbitt, she snapped after suffering from years of abuse at the hands of her husband, John. The last straw came on June 23, 1993 when John came home drunk after a night of partying and raped her. Later that evening, she got a drink of water from the kitchen, noticed a carving knife laying on the kitchen counter, and decided to use it to strike back. After she severed Bobbitt’s Manhood, she drove off in her car, ditched it on the side of the road, then called 911 after realizing the gravity of what she had done. The penis was recovered, packed in ice, then transported to the hospital where John was being treated. It was successfully reattached. 

During the trial for her crimes, her defense attorney argued that the mental, physical, and sexual abuse she experienced during her marriage caused her to suffer from severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She was acquitted by reason of temporary insanity.

The couple (thankfully) divorced in 1995.

3) Steven Steinberg

In 1981 Steven Steinberg stabbed his wife 26 times in his Arizona home, confessed to the killing, and was inexplicably found not guilty at his trial. How can a self-proclaimed murderer get acquitted? By insisting that he was “asleep.” 

Believe it or not, Steinberg claimed he suffered from a particularly unusual case of sleepwalking and was unconscious when he killed his wife. Since he had no memory of the murder, he argued, he could not be held responsible. His legal defense stated “The defendant was not in his normal state of mind when he committed the act. Sleep walking is a parasomnia manifested by automatism; as such, harmful actions committed while in this state cannot be blamed on the perpetrator.”

The defense worked, and Steinberg strolled out of the courtroom a free man.

However, if this defendant had entered the exact same plea today, his trial would have ended with a very different mark in his public record. In 1994 in Arizona, the verdict “Guilty But Mentally Ill” replaced “Temporary Insanity.” Under the new rules, a person found “guilty but insane” would have to undergo extensive treatment in a hospital rather than be let go.

Still A Long Shot

Convincing a jury that you were crazy during the crime is always a hail mary pass. James Holmes will have to undergo extensive psychiatric evaluation before his doctors determine he isn’t all well. But even if the doctors are convinced, that doesn’t mean that the jury will buy the story. Time will tell if his insanity plea will fail (like most do) — or if he will join the short list of people who have successfully used it to escape prison.

Logan Strain is a blogger from San Diego, CA.  He writes about crime, law, and personal safety.

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