Murder and Responsibility

Review of Guilty But Insane. Four Trials for A Murder. By G. W. Keeton. (Pp. 206+ix; illustrated. 2 1s.) London: Macdonald and Co. Ltd. 1961.

British Medical Journal, 27 January 1962, 235

Professor Keeton's fascinating book gives an account of four trials of considerable significance for the development of the concept of medico-legal responsibility in British law. These were the trial of James Hadfield in 1800 for an attempt on the life of George III by firing a pistol at him at the theatre; the trial in 1843 of Daniel McNaughton [1]; the Straffen case and the trial of 1952; and the trial of Gunther Podola in 1959. The medical conditions of the accused in each of these cases were very different. Hadfield had developed a paranoid state on the basis of a very severe brain injury; McNaughton was in all probability a paranoid schizophrenic; Straffen was feeble-minded; and Podola was a psychopath who developed a hysterical or possibly a feigned amnesia. The first two cases brought a re-orientation of the law; the third brought the existing law into disrepute; and the fourth has left matters just where they were, save for a lingering feeling of dissatisfaction in the minds of some legal authorities. Professor Keeton presents a vivid and dramatic account of the trials, shows how each of them fits into a historical picture, and provides an appreciation in the final chapter of how we now stand. He is scrupulously fair to the medical as well as the legal position, but is perhaps less critical of the latter than he might well have been.

    This is brought out in the account of the Straffen trial. At this distance in time we realize that the execution of Straffen for murder would have been a miscarriage of justice of the gravest kind. But it was only the courageous recommendation for a reprieve by the Home Secretary which prevented it. Public opinion was enraged by the killing of a third little girl within a few hours of Straffen's escape from Broadmoor, and demanded the extreme penalty. There is no doubt that Straffen's trial in 1951 took place in an atmosphere extremely hostile to the prisoner. This was an occasion which demanded the highest qualities of courage and humanity on the part of the defence, such qualities as were forthcoming in Erskine in the Hadfield trial and in Cockburn in the McNaughton case. In those trials counsel called on the Court to consider what was the essential nature of the law relating to insanity, and as a result the law itself was improved. In the Straffen case the defence made no such effort, and as a result the law was left more rigid and McNaughton-bound than before. Straffen was a certified mental defective, and in 1951 he had been found unfit to plead. Why then was his fitness to plead not made an issue in the 1952 trial ? Then again the point whether or not mental deficiency ranked as disease of the mind was never properly argued. There is no doubt of what informed medical opinion would be on this point. Defending counsel, who should have fought for the principle that mental defectives and lunatics are equally diseased in mind, abandoned the point without a struggle. This was the great opportunity to reformulate the law in a spirit of common sense, the opportunity which an Erskine would have seized. There is an old proverb which states a basic principle of medico-legal responsibility: don't blame the cat if the maid's a fool. It was the system of security at Broadmoor which should have been on trial, and not the feeble-minded Straffen.

[1] 'For an exhaustive statement of the reasons for regarding this as the correct spelling, see Morton, L. T.: " Daniel McNaughton's Signature." Brit. med. J., 1956, 1, 107.