On Sunday, February 27, 1859, Philip Barton Key was gunned down in front of the White House. Key was a high-profile man in Washington D.C as the city’s District Attorney and also the son of Francis Scott Key, an American icon and the writer of the national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. Twelve people were witness to the shooting and some believe that President James Buchanan who was in office at the time, might have also been a witness. The shooter, Daniel Sickles, who was a United States Congressman had previously been a Union Army general in the Civil War. The story starts with Sickles’ wife apparently having a public, ongoing affair with Key. Daniel Sickles was aware of the affair, but on that fateful day, he caught Philip Barton Key calling up to the window of the room where his wife slept. Consequently, Sickles flew into a rage which resulted in his merciless shooting of Key. Afterwards, he was charged with first-degree murder, which at the time, in some states, was punishable by capital punishment, which was execution. However, this was not the case for Daniel Sickles, whose trial concluded with the verdict from the all-male jury being “not guilty”.
Nearly one and a half centuries later, “not guilty” were once again the famous words to conclude a murder trial about a mother who killed all of her children. The story of Andrea Yates involves one of the most famous criminal trials in our history. In 2001, Yates murdered her five children by drowning them one at a time in her bathtub. The oldest of these children was a 7 year old boy and the youngest; an infant girl at just 6 months. In court, Yates admitted to the murders, and also claimed that she did them because she was saving her children from Satan.
In both cases, there was not a lack of incriminating evidence to put Sickles and Yates behind bars. In fact, Sickles who committed his crime in broad daylight and a very public setting, had twelve people witness his actions. Any prosecutor going against Sickles in court would have had enough evidence to win the case. As for Andrea Yates, she had admitted in court that she was responsible for the deaths of her children. Even though originally, Yates was declared guilty by the jury, after an appeal was made by her defendents, she was found not guilty. But why? Why are these obvious killers not going to prison for their crimes? The answer to this question would be that both the Sickles and the Yates case are two of the most famous cases involving the insanity plea defense.
The insanity plea is when the person accused of the crime admits to committing the crime, but denies responsibility on the basis that they were not mentally competent at the time the crime was committed. In the United States, the insanity defense was first used in the Daniel Sickles trial in 1859. However, such defense can be traced back to judicial practices in ancient Rome. More recently and more famously, though, the insanity defense was first used in Great...