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Not guilty by reason of insanity

In recent decades it became routine for the accused in serious violent crimes to be referred to a psychiatric examination prior to prosecution. Mental health assessments also form a large part of pre-sentence and parole reports.

As recently as the 1940s this was an exception, not the general rule and cases which involved mental health issues often included no professional advice from physicians, psychiatrists or psychologists and when they did the input was often minimal.

In 1945 a young Saint John mother was placed on trial for murdering her young daughter, whose body was found in a dump in the city’s South end. As the baby was nearly a year old the charge of infanticide was not possible. The woman in question, who had fled to Ontario by train with one of her children, was married to a man serving overseas with the armed forces.

In 1944 she gave birth to a third child, fathered by another man who was temporarily living in Saint John. At the murder trial psychiatric evidence was extremely limited; Dr. E. Menzies, superintendent of the Provincial Hospital, testified that he would be unable to determine the mental state of the defendant without a prolonged period of examination.

Testimony mentioned that she was “highly strung,” and prone to “tantrums and spells.” It was also mentioned that her brother had been a patient in the Provincial Hospital for almost two decades. The defence relied on a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and appealed to the prisoner’s youth and alleged helplessness.

The judge, in his summation and instructions to the jury, raised the possibility that the accused may have been temporarily insane “by reason of a disease of the mind.” What that disease may have been was not mentioned. The jury was obviously sympathetic and returned after ninety minutes with a verdict of not guilty.

In a similar case in 1946 the same psychiatrist testified that another young woman, charged with drowning her infant daughter, was “weak and submissive” and would have been unable to resist “the will of a person of a more dominant character.” In this case the father of the unfortunate infant girl who had been killed had been convicted of the murder.