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UNITED STATES v. FIELDING

January 15, 1957

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff,
v.
James FIELDING, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

This case is before the Court on the defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which would adjudge the defendant not guilty on the ground of insanity.

The defendant was tried on a charge of murder in the first degree. That he committed the homicide was not denied. He contended, however, first, that the homicide did not amount to murder in the first degree; and, second, that he was insane when it was committed. The court instructed the jury that it had a right to return any one of four verdicts: guilty of murder in the first degree, as charged; guilty of murder in the second degree; guilty of manslaughter; not guilty on the ground of insanity; or, not guilty. It should be observed that under the District of Columbia Code, if the defendant in a criminal case is acquitted on the sole ground that he was insane at the time of the commission of the offense, this fact must be set forth by the jury in its verdict. *fn1" If such a verdict is returned, it becomes mandatory on the court to order the defendant confined in a hospital for the mentally ill. In that event, the defendant may be released from the institution by an order of the court issued on the basis of a certificate of the Superintendent of the hospital to the effect that the defendant has recovered his sanity; that in the opinion of the Superintendant the defendant will not in the reasonable future be dangerous to himself or others; and that he is entitled to unconditional release. The jury in the instant case found the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree.

 Counsel for the defendant now moves for judgment notwithstanding the verdict that would direct an acquittal on the ground of insanity. This motion was apparently suggested by the opinion of the Court of Appeals for this Circuit in Douglas v. United States, 239 F.2d 52, 59. The court indicated, however, that its decision should be deemed limited to the facts of that case, for it stated in its opinion that, 'Each case must be decided upon its own facts'. Moreover, the court recognized the existence of a constitutional question, but said that under the situation existing in that case, the suggested constitutional question need not be decided. The court tentatively explored possible solutions of the problem, *fn2" but did not make a definitive ruling on this point. In view of these circumstances, the entire subject seems open for consideration. Because of its comparative novelty and the unusual character of the defendant's application, a detailed study and discussion seem appropriate.

 While the written motion before the court purports to seek a judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict, counsel orally amended and limited his motion at the time of argument so as to pray for an acquittal solely on the ground of insanity. Counsel for the defendant also affirmatively stated at the oral argument that he did not request a new trial in the alternative, since he did not desire to subject the defendant to the risk of being found guilty of murder in the first degree. *fn3"

 A consideration of the defendant's motion involves three aspects: first, the precise issue of fact relating to mental competency to be determined by the jury; second, the evidence in this case bearing on this issue; and, third, procedural problems.

 Modern penal law is founded on moral culpability. *fn4" The law punishes a person for a criminal act only if he is morally responsible for it. To do otherwise would be both inhumane and unenlightened. As was said in Holloway v. United States, 80 U.S.App.D.C. 3, 5, 148 F.2d 665, 666, 'Our collective conscience does not allow punishment where it cannot impose blame.' It is this fundamental principle that exempts from punishment certain types of insane criminals.

 A difficult problem invariably arises in endeavoring to formulate a sound, practical definition of legal insanity. Obviously there are many mentally abnormal, subnormal, or defective persons, who should be held responsible for a crime that they commit. For example, a person with a psychopathic personality, or, to use a more recent scientific term, a person with a sociopathic personality, is subject to punishment for his criminal acts, and yet he is not a normal person. So, too, there may be mentally abnormal persons who may be deemed culpable in the case of some crimes, but not in respect to others. Again, insane persons may have lucid intervals, as well as what are called technically 'periods of remission', that is periods during which their sanity is temporarily restored and, naturally, they should be considered punishable for a crime committed during those times. The perennial task of devising a definition or a series of definitions of legal insanity that would properly differentiate between those mentally abnormal persons who should he held responsible for their crimes and those who should not be considered blameworthy, is manifestly no easy or simple matter. First, a line of demarcation must be drawn where it would attain a proper balance between the needs of protection of the public, and fairness and justice to the accused. We must take as our guiding star the celebrated precept so aptly framed by Mr. Justice Cardozo: *fn5"

 '* * * justice, though due to the accused, is due to the accuser also. The concept of fairness must not be strained till it is narrowed to a filament. We are to keep the balance true.'

 Any comprehensive discussion of the issue of fact to be determined by the jury, must commence with M'Naghten's Case, 10 Clark & Finnelly 200, 8 Eng.Rep. 718, decided by the House of Lords in 1843. In that opinion the following rule was enunciated:

 '* * * to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong. * * *'

 The following additional principle was also announced:

 'The fourth question which your Lordships have proposed to us is this: -- 'If a person under an insane delusion as to existing facts, commits an offence in consequence thereof, is he thereby excused?' To which question the answer must of course depend on the nature of the delusion: but, making the same assumption as we did before, namely that he labours under such partial delusion only, and is not in other respects insane, we think he must be considered in the same situation as to responsibility as if the facts with respect to which the delusion exists were real. For example, if under the influence of his delusion he supposes another man to be in the act of attempting to take away his life, and he kills that man, as he supposes, in self-defence, he would be exempt from punishment.'

 For many years the doctrines of M'Naghten's Case were universally followed. In 1870, however, an exception arose in New Hampshire where the appellate court approved a general instruction given by the trial judge in a homicide case merely to the effect that whether the defendant had a mental disease, and whether the killing was the product of such disease, were questions of fact for the jury, State v. Pike, 49 N.H. 399, 407-408. For a long time New Hampshire stood in solitary isolation on this point. A search of the authorities fails to disclose that any other jurisdiction ever followed the New Hampshire ...


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