In February 1843, Daniel M’Naughten was tried in London for the murder of Edward Drummond, the private secretary to Prime Minister Robert Peel. M’Naughten was laboring under the delusion that Prime Minister Peel was part of a system that was persecuting him. Only by shooting Peel could he end the torment. Drummond became the victim of these delusions when M’Naughten mistook him for Peel. The trial of M’Naughten, the verdict of insanity, and the aftermath made legal history.
The trial itself is an example of wonderful advocacy. How do I know? I read the transcript of the trial, available along with centuries of other trial transcripts on the website of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674–1913.
In the M’Naughten case, the prosecutor methodically presented the Crown’s case, beginning with witnesses who observed the shooting, then offering the opinion of the examining physician that the shooting was the cause of Drummond’s death (although remarkably Drummond walked home before succumbing to his injuries), and proceeding to testimony about M’Naughten’s planning of the shooting. The prosecutor ended by attempting to anticipate M’Naughten’s insanity defense with witnesses who attested that M’Naughten was in his right mind, but they fared poorly because of their limited interaction with him. It also didn’t help that the defense barrister exposed that one of the witnesses had been drinking heavily before taking the stand (although he insisted that he only had one or two).
Defense counsel countered with an equally methodical presentation in support of an insanity defense. The defense began with M’Naughten’s father, who provided a broad picture of his son’s mental deterioration, followed by acquaintances and business associates with arguably less bias, who testified to specific interactions with M’Naughten that illustrated his delusions. The defense then called local officials with no stake in the case, including law enforcement officials, who had fielded complaints from M’Naughten about the plots against him. The defense finished with a series of expert witnesses who testified to their examination of M’Naughten and conclusion that he was insane. Although it would be impermissible today to testify to a legal conclusion such as insanity, the defense experts provided ample detail about M’Naughten’s delusions and their effect on his mental state and actions.
The defense presentation was so effective that the prosecutor conceded in his closing argument that he could not press for a verdict against M’Naughten. The judge directed the jury to enter a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, and M’Naughten was committed to an asylum under a law enacted in 1800 for the custody of “insane persons charged with criminal conduct.” M’Naughten remained confined in an asylum until his death 21 years later. See Robert Aitken & Marilyn Aitken, The M’Naghten Case: The Queen Was Not Amused, Litigation, Summer 2010, at 53–56. (North Carolina also has automatic commitment rules and strict procedures for release in cases involving verdicts of not guilty by reason of insanity. See North Carolina Civil Commitment Manual Chapter 7 (2d ed. 2011); Shea Denning, Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, N.C. Crim. L. Blog (Nov. 2, 2015).)
The controversy did not end with M’Naughten’s trial and commitment, however. Upset with the verdict, the House of Lords requested that the Chief Justice convene a group of judges to reexamine the grounds for insanity. The result was a stricter insanity test requiring that the defendant not have known the nature and quality of his or her actions or the difference between right and wrong. Id. A majority of jurisdictions in the U.S., including North Carolina, follow the M’Naughten test today. See Wayne R. LaFave, Substantive Criminal Law § 7.2 (3d ed., Oct. 2018).
It isn’t clear that M’Naughten would have satisfied the test that bears his name. He certainly met what has been called the “irresistible impulse” test, under which a defendant is considered not criminally responsible if he had a mental disease that kept him from controlling his conduct. See id. at § 7.3. The testimony by lay and expert witnesses showed that M’Naughten could not resist his delusions and that he believed shooting Prime Minister Peel was the only way he could end the persecution against him. His actions, in the words of one of the doctors, were “beyond his moral control.” It was a closer question, however, whether he could distinguish between right and wrong.
Despite lawmakers’ antipathy toward the verdict—a reaction we sometimes see today to mental health defenses—I have to believe that justice was better served by committing Daniel M’Naughten to a hospital than by sending him to prison. The resolution reflected his culpability as well as protected public safety.