Insanity-Defense Expert Releases Book on Celebrated Murder Trials

Release Date: March 11, 2008


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A new book by Charles Patrick Ewing, a UB law professor and forensic psychologist, looks at well-known murder trials and the insanity defense.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Charles Patrick Ewing, the University at Buffalo Law School professor considered one of the country's leading experts on the insanity defense, takes readers into the minds of David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy and other notorious murderers in his new book of chilling insights into some of the most well-known murder trials in recent memory.

Ewing, a SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and forensic psychologist, uncovers rich personal histories and intricate trial details of murderers who have become household names in "Insanity: Murder, Madness, and the Law" (Oxford University Press, 2008).

In it, Ewing debunks the public's and legal profession's enduring stereotypes surrounding the insanity defense.

"Every time a defendant pleads insanity, the case makes headlines," says Ewing, whose previous book, "Minds on Trial," is considered a landmark study of the criminally insane defense. "In those rare instances in which a defendant is actually found insane, the public is usually outraged.

"In homicide cases, especially, they believe that the defendant 'got away with murder.'"

Drawing on personal evaluations of hundreds of defendants and extensive research, Ewing conveys the psychological and legal drama of 10 landmark insanity cases. At the same time, he challenges misconceptions made by the general public and many in the legal community.

"I know from experience and research that the defense is rarely raised, rarely applicable and even more rarely successful," Ewing says. "And when it does succeed, the defendant usually loses his or her liberty for many years, sometimes for life."

Ewing's recently released book delves into the personal background and legal maneuvering of murder cases that have become household names. His 10 case studies include "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz; John Gacy, who killed at least 30 boys and young men and buried most in a small crawlspace beneath his Chicago home; and Andrea Yates, a mentally ill Texas mother who drowned her five children in the family's bathtub.

Ewing's narrative begins with the case of George Fitzsimmons, an Amherst, N.Y., man who

killed his parents with karate chops in 1969. After he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, Fitzsimmons was released from Buffalo Psychiatric Center and moved to Pennsylvania to live with his elderly aunt and uncle. A few years later, in 1973, Fitzsimmons killed them, stabbing them 34 times. He was awaiting sentencing for assaulting his wife when his final attack occurred.

Since then, the name Fitzsimmons has been associated with what many people think is wrong with the insanity defense.

"Insanity: Murder, Madness, and the Law" argues that the Fitzsimmons case was extremely rare, particularly in today's legal climate. Nevertheless, Ewing says, the Fitzsimmons case shapes public and legal opinion, despite being the exception.

"In most cases, a defendant acquitted by reason of insanity will spend more time locked up than a defendant who is found guilty," according to Ewing. "Being found insane almost always results in an indeterminate (sometimes lifetime) commitment to a secure mental hospital. And most of these 'hospitals' are much more like prisons than treatment facilities."

Ewing, who has taught UB law students for more than 25 years, often tells his class "you have to be crazy to plead insanity."

"I mean, of course, that to succeed with the defense, you have to have a severe mental illness and, if you do succeed, you will likely be locked up longer than you would have been if you were convicted."

"Insanity: Murder, Madness, and the Law" also delves into the volatile life of Jack Ruby, who was born Jacob Rubenstein, the man who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Ewing calls the case that Ruby was insane "extraordinarily weak, the expert testimony for the defense was poorly presented and a conscientious jury would have been forced to nullify the law" to acquit him.

Ewing also profiles Andrew Goldstein, the mentally ill man who shoved Chautauqua County resident Kendra Webdale in front of a New York City subway train. The case, Ewing argues, led to a legal precedent that may fundamentally alter the way expert testimony is presented in insanity trials.

"In only two of these cases did the defense succeed, and in one of those cases it took two trials before the defendant was finally acquitted by reason of insanity," Ewing writes. "As these cases also demonstrate, the insanity defense is often pled because the defendant really has no other defense. In a sense, the insanity defense is to criminal trials what the 'Hail Mary' pass is to football."

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