160 U.S. 469 (1895), 593, Davis v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 593
Citation:160 U.S. 469, 16 S.Ct. 353, 40 L.Ed. 499
Party Name:Davis v. United States
Case Date:December 16, 1895
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 469

160 U.S. 469 (1895)

16 S.Ct. 353, 40 L.Ed. 499



United States

No. 593

United States Supreme Court

December 16, 1895

Submitted October 30, 1895




If it appears on the trial of a person accused of committing the crime of murder that the deceased was killed by the accused under circumstances which, nothing else appearing, made a case of murder, the jury cannot properly return a verdict of guilty of the offense charged if, upon the whole evidence, from whichever side it comes, they have a reasonable doubt whether, at the time of killing, the accused was mentally competent to distinguish between right and wrong or to understand the nature of the act he was committing.

No man should be deprived of his life under the forms of law unless the jurors who try him are able, upon their consciences, to say that the evidence before them, by whomsoever adduced, is sufficient to show beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged.

The plaintiff in error was indicted for murder, tried in the court below, and convicted. In the opinion of this Court, the issue brought here for decision is stated as follows:


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court below instructed the jury that the defense of insanity could not avail the accused unless it appeared affirmatively, to the reasonable satisfaction of the jury, that he was not criminally responsible for his acts. The fact of killing being clearly proved, the legal presumption, based upon the common experience of mankind, that every man is sane, was sufficient, the court in effect said, to authorize a verdict of guilty although the jury might entertain a reasonable doubt upon the evidence whether the accused, by reason of his mental condition, was criminally responsible for the killing in question. In other words, if the evidence was in equilibrio as to the accused's being sane -- that is, capable of comprehending the nature and effect of his acts -- he was to be treated just as he would be if there were no defense of insanity or if there were an entire absence of proof that he was insane.

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HARLAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Dennis Davis was indicted for the crime of having, on the 18th day of September, 1894 at the Creek Nation, in the Indian Territory, within the Western District of Arkansas, feloniously, willfully, and of his malice aforethought killed and murdered one Sol Blackwell.

He was found guilty of the charge in the indictment. A motion for a new trial having been overruled, and the court having adjudged that the accused was guilty of the crime of

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murder, as charged, he was sentenced to suffer the penalty of death by hanging.

At the trial below, the government introduced evidence which, if alone considered, made it the duty of the jury to return a verdict of guilty of the crime charged.

But there was evidence tending to show that, at the time of the killing, the accused, by reason of unsoundness of weakness of mind, was not criminally responsible for his acts. In addition to the evidence of a practicing physician of many years' standing, and who, for the time, was physician at the jail in which the accused was confined previous to his trial, "other witnesses," the bill of exceptions states,

testified that they had been intimately acquainted with the defendant for a number of years, lived near him, and had been frequently with him, knew his mental condition, and that he was weak-minded, and regarded by his neighbors and people as being what they called "half crazy." Other witnesses, who had known the defendant for ten or twenty years, witnesses who had worked with him, and had been thrown in constant contact with him, said he had always been called half crazy, weak-minded, and, in the opinion of the witnesses, defendant was not of sound mind.

The issue therefore was as to the responsibility of the accused for the killing alleged and clearly proved.

In its elaborate charge, the court instructed the jury as to the rules by which they were to be guided in determining whether the accused took the life of the deceased feloniously, willfully, and with malice aforethought. "Where," the court said,

a man has been shot to death, where the facts, as claimed by the government here, show a lying in wait, show previous preparation, show the selection of a deadly weapon, and show concealment to get an opportunity to do the act -- where that state of case exists, if there is a mental condition of the kind that renders a man accountable, why there is crime, and that crime is murder.

Referring to the evidence adduced to show that the accused was incompetent in law to commit crime, the court observed:

Now when a man premeditates a wicked design that produces

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death, and executes that design, if he is a sane being -- if he is what the law calls a sane man, not that he may be partially insane, not that he may be eccentric, and not that he may be unable to control his will power if he is in a passion or rage because of some real or imaginary grievance he may have received -- I say, if you find him in that condition, and you find [16 S.Ct. 354] these other things attending the act, you would necessarily find the existence of the attributes of the crime of murder known as "willfulness" and "malice aforethought.”

But the court said the law

presumes every man is sane, and the burden of showing it is not true is upon the party who asserts it. The responsibility of overturning that presumption, that the law recognizes as one that is universal, is with the party who sets it up as a defense. The government is not required to show it. The law presumes that we are all sane; therefore, the government does not have to furnish any evidence to show that this defendant is sane. It comes in here with the fact established in legal contemplation until it is overthrown. The government takes and keeps that attitude until the evidence brought in the case overthrows this presumption of sanity. Now, let us see what the nature of this defense is. The defendant interposes the plea of insanity, and he says by this plea that he did the killing, but the act is not one for which he can be held responsible -- in other words, that the act was and is excusable in the law because he was insane at the time of its commission. Now I say to you in this connection, and it is a fact admitted in argument by the counsel, that under the evidence there is nothing that justifies the act of the killing; nor was it such an act that the law upholds it or mitigates it, or reduces it to a grade lower than murder. If it was committed by the defendant while he was actually insane, it is excusable.


Now, I will undertake or endeavor to tell you, and I bespeak your most earnest attention, especially upon this proposition of "insanity." The term "insanity," as used in this defense, means such a perverted and deranged condition of the mental and moral faculties as to render a person incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, or unconscious at

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the time of the nature of the act he is committing, or where, though conscious of the nature of the act, and able to distinguish between right and wrong, and know that the act is wrong, yet his will -- by which I mean the governing power of his mind -- has been, otherwise than voluntarily, so completely destroyed that his actions are not subject to it, but are beyond his control. Such insanity, if proved to your reasonable satisfaction to have existed at the time of the commission of the act -- that is the test -- at the time of its commission, is in the law an excuse for it, however brutal or atrocious it may have been. For a person to be excused from criminal responsibility, it is not necessary that he be a raving maniac, but ordinarily it requires something more than mere eccentricity of a natural character. Such insanity does not excuse.

Later in the charge, the court recurred to the defense of insanity, and said:

Now, as I have already told you, the law presumes every person who has reached the years of discretion to be of sane mind, and this presumption continues until the contrary is shown. So that when, as in this case, insanity is interposed as a defense, the fact of the existence of such insanity at the time of the commission of the offense charged must be established by the evidence to the reasonable satisfaction of a jury, and the burden of proof of the insanity rests with the defendant. Although you may believe and find from the evidence that the defendant did commit the act charged against him, yet, if you further find that at the time he did so he was in such an insane condition of mind that he did not and could not understand and comprehend the nature of the act, or that, thus knowing and understanding it, he was so far deprived of his will, not by his own passion, conceived for the purpose of spurring him on to commit the violence, not by his own passion of mind engendered by some real or fancied grievance, but that he was so far deprived of his will by disease or other cause over which he had no control as to render him unable to control his actions -- then such killing was not a malicious killing, and you will acquit him of the crime charged against him.

In concluding its charge, the court thus summarized the

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principles by which the jury were to be guided in their deliberations:

Now gentlemen, the propositions are few in this case. First, inquire whether there was a killing; then whether the act of killing was done by the defendant, and what was his condition of mind under the law at that time, as I have given it to you. See what his mental condition was at that time under the law as I have given it to you, and if he is to be held responsible for his...

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