The Legal Issues of President James Garfield's Assassination

PresidentGarfieldJames A Garfield was a true American hero.

A boy who grew up in abject poverty and became the President of the United States.

The man who went to the Republican Convention to nominate another man for President, only to get the nomination himself.

And stalked by an office seeker who murdered him.

President Garfield was one of the best men qualified for the office in US History. The country needed him, because the later half of the 19th Century is short on political heroes who stood on principle.

James Garfield was President for only 200 days.

Much of that time was spent dying.

The Destiny of the Republic

Garfield_ThumbsUp1Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic is an amazing book on the life of President James Garfield.

Her analysis of Garfield’s rise to the Presidency and death from both an assassin’s bullet and his doctors is simply historical storytelling at its best.

Moreover, the accounting of Charles Guiteau’s trial is excellent, with a detailed summary of the insanity defense in the 19th Century.

After reading Destiny of the Republic, I reviewed the case law from Charles Guiteau trial and related legal issues.

Here are significant legal issues from Garfield’s assassination:

Presidential Succession

President Garfield’s death highlighted a huge gap in the Presidential Succession: There was no plan for who was in charge if the President was unable to fulfill his duties, but still alive. We have the 25th Amendment and Presidential Succession Act today, which explains how the Vice President can become the Acting President (or if the country is really having a bad day, the Speaker of the House on down to the Secretary of the Interior).

Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881. He did not die until September 19, 1881. That is a significant amount of time for “who exactly is in charge” for decisions that had to be made on matters of state.

Silver Kennedy Half Dollar - Tails FrontalJurisdiction for A Presidential Assassin

President Garfield was shot in Washington, DC. He died in New Jersey. Justice Cox for the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia determined that the District of Columbia had jurisdiction to try Charles Guiteau for the President’s murder.

The Court held that DC was the proper venue, not where the President died as argued by Guiteau’s attorney Charles Reed, because “the crime was committed where the wound was inflicted.”  United States v. Guiteau, 1 Mackey 498 (D.C. 1882). The Court explained:

The contention is, in this case, that murder can only be tried and punished in the county where it is committed; that death is an essential element in the crime, and that, as the death did not occur within this District, the crime of murder was not committed here, but, at most, an assault with intent to kill. The same reasoning will apply to the place where the death occurred. The mortal wound being an essential element of the crime, and this not having been inflicted in the same jurisdiction where the death occurred, it follows that murder was not committed there. The consequence of this doctrine is that, although murder most foul may be committed, yet, if by accident, or even by contrivance of the assassin himself, the victim be conveyed, before his death, over the territorial boundary of the jurisdiction where he was smitten, it becomes impossible to locate the murder, and its perpetrator secures immunity from the punishment due to this heinous crime.


A wound, not immediately fatal, is inflicted in this District. Until its consequences are ascertained, it cannot be determined whether the offense committed is a homicide or an attempt. But when death results from the wound, no matter where, it is ascertained that a homicide is committed. Everything of which the perpetrator was guilty was committed here. The crime consists in intentionally and unlawfully causing the death. Wherever the death may have occurred, it was caused here, by the fatal wound inflicted here. It is even a misnomer to speak of such an offense as having been begun here and completed elsewhere.


In this condition of affairs, I feel at liberty to adopt and announce the opinion which seems most to conform to common sense, and that is that the jurisdiction is complete where the fatal wound was inflicted.

United States v. Guiteau, 1 Mackey 563, 567-568, 584 (D.C. 1882).

Medical Malpractice

Charles Guiteau’s argued in his defense that Doctor Willard Bliss and the medical team killed President Garfield. Guiteau had a point, if you ignore the fact Bliss would have never treated Garfield but for Guiteau shooting the President. (See, Destiny of the Republic, Chapter 22).

Micro-SurgeryBliss did not believe in sterilizing medical equipment, explored Garfield’s wound without cleaning it and dominated the treatment of the President. This was also long before latex gloves and hand sanitizer.

Bliss was wrong. Arrogant. Ignorant. And he killed the President of the United States from his poor treatment.

Stethoscope_2Bliss’ arrogance was highlighted with his interaction with Alexander Graham Bell. Bell invented a medical metal detector specifically to find the bullet in the President. However, Bliss only let Bell scan the areas where Bliss thought the bullet was located.

Bliss’ treatment would make for an excellent civil case for medical malpractice, plus a possible criminal case for negligence. However, that would not be enough to give Guiteau a free pass for shooting James Garfield.

Bliss treated Garfield because Charles Guiteau planned to shoot President Garfield, purchased a gun for the purpose, practiced with said gun, stalked the President, and then shot Garfield in public with the intent to kill the President.

“But for” Guiteau’s actions, President Garfield would have never been under Bliss’ care for a gunshot wound.

A Fair Trial For a Very Public Crime

Jury Selection

Selecting an impartial jury for someone who murdered a President of the United States is no small task. It is a news story that is hard to miss.

Guiteau’s trial lasted from November 14, 1881 to January 25th, 1882. He was found guilty the same day. He was sentenced to be executed on June 30, 1882. United States v. Guiteau, 1 Mackey 498 (D.C. 1882).

How did the Court ensure Guiteau’s Constitutional right to a jury trial was fair? It’s not like they could simply move the trial to St. Thomas in the hopes of finding jurors who had not heard about Guiteau shooting Garfield (for the record, the United States did not purchase St. Thomas until 1917).

A 1893 opinion referenced the challenge of finding impartial jurors in both the Aaron Burr and Charles Guiteau trials. The Court explained:

The jury duty devolved upon the citizen is no more voluntary than his similar obligation to render military service. He can escape from neither upon the strength of his mere representation of his unfitness, and thus be allowed at his will to cast his obligation upon others, whose burden grows heavier by every such exemption. The duty of the examining authority, instead of ceasing when the citizen, in either case, has made his general claim to exemption, may more properly be said to have then really begun.

In the Burr trial, every one of the hundreds of persons summoned as jurors, with scarcely one exception, answered on his voir dire that he had formed an opinion. The attorneys for the United States could not have been far wrong when they expressed their belief that to obtain a jury in that case entirely free from all opinions as to the guilt or innocence of the prisoner was not possible, unless it should be dropped from Heaven, or be composed of hermits who had passed their lives immured in caves or hollow trees.

The same conditions appeared in the Guiteau trial.

But impartial jurors were finally obtained in each case, by a careful analysis by the court of the sources and extent of their alleged opinions. There must be few persons of intelligence in this country, who have not heard and participated in discussions as to the probabilities of the guilt of the person charged with the savage murder of her parents at Fall River a short time since; and atrocious crimes committed in even foreign countries, attract almost the same degree of attention here, and give rise to similar expressions of opinion, on the newspaper accounts of the facts or of coroners’ inquests. But as all sensible persons observe the reports vary in the different newspapers of the same day, and in successive issues of the same newspaper, it is impossible to believe such opinions can have a disqualifying effect upon the minds of men of average good sense. If this were so, the very lawyers who are employed to defend the accused and are on the alert to pronounce intelligent jurors disqualified, would find it their duty to decline service in a case they had thus necessarily prejudged.

Although the oath taken on the voir dire is to make true answers to such questions as may be asked by the court, the examination is often conducted in great part by counsel whose experience has taught them exactly what are the crucial points involved in the inquiry. Under such examinations, an ignorant person, appearing in court perhaps for the first time as a juror, with the limited vocabulary of the uneducated, may naturally assent to questions not fully understood; or by using technical terms in an inexact manner, may indicate the formation of disqualifying opinions; until a careful examination by the judge, the one person concerned in the inquiry who must be supposed to be entirely disinterested in any result except the attainment of justice to the prisoner and the community, may evince an impartiality fitting him to serve.

United States v. Barber, 1 Tuck. & Cl. 456, 462-464 (D.C. 1893) (Emphasis added).

Travel Costs for Witnesses

Getting across the United States costs money and takes time. Guiteau was broke. As such, the Defense made an application for the Court allowing fees for witnesses residing at a distance of more than one hundred miles from Washington testifying for the defense. United States v. Guiteau, 1 Mackey 585 (May 22, 1882).

The application was made pursuant to section No. 839 of the Revised Statutes of the District, which stated, “In all criminal trials the Supreme Court, or the judge trying the case, may allow such number of witnesses on behalf of the defendant as may appear necessary, the fees thereof, with the costs of service, to be paid in the same manner as Government witnesses are paid.” Id.

The Court decided in chambers how many witnesses were to testify for the defense at the expense of the Government. US v. Guiteau, 1 Mackey 585 (May 22, 1882).

The Insanity Defense

Guiteau plead to the Court that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, because God told him to kill President Garfield. Moreover, he was no longer insane because God was not talking to him (See, Destiny of the Republic, Chapter 22 for a beautifully detailed account of the trial).

And so began a very long trial on whether or not Charles Guiteau was insane that included 36 expert witnesses. Guiteau himself testified for two weeks.

The Court issued the following jury instruction on the insanity defense:

“If he is laboring under disease of his mental faculties–if that is a proper expression–to such an extent that he does not know what he is doing, or does not know that it is wrong, then he is wanting in that sound memory and discretion which makes a part of the definition of murder.”

US v Guiteau, 1 Mackey 498, at *550.

Justice James of the Supreme Court for the District of Columbia explained the insanity defense as follows:

Insanity is a defense on the very ground that it disables the accused from knowing that his act is wrong. The very essence of the inquiry is whether his insanity is such as to deprive him of that knowledge. If a witness is competent to give his opinion as to the mental condition of the accused, he is competent to state his opinion as to the degree of capacity, or of incapacity, by reason of disorder, and whether the disorder seemed to have reached such a degree as to deprive him of the knowledge of right and wrong. That capacity or incapacity is itself a question as to the extent of the disorder, if disorder exists, and is not a conclusion to be drawn from the existence of insanity.

US v Guiteau, 1 Mackey 498, at *546.

The Supreme Court of the District of Columbia found the witnesses who testified on the issue of sanity were competent to do so and thus no error in their testimony. Id.

Dr. Fordyce Barker was a Prosecution witness who answered the following question on direct examination:

“Is the habit of boasting of intimacy with people holding high position, and possessing influence and power, when the fact is otherwise, any evidence, in your judgment, as a scientist, of an insane delusion?”


“It is not an evidence of a delusion of an insane person, because it is not the result of disease. It is a result of vanity and self-conceit and love of notoriety. These are vices and not diseases.”

US v Guiteau, 1 Mackey 498, at *546.

The Court explained the testimony was admissible, because the issue of shooting the President had been conceded by the Defendant. The doctor’s answer spoke only to the issue of sanity or insanity and not of guilt. Id.

Guiteau’s ex-wife also testified that she saw no evidence of Guiteau being of unsound mind. The ex-wife had been instructed by the court not to disclose any communications between husband and wife, which are protected. As she was only testifying to her opinion, not any communications, her testimony was admissible. US v Guiteau, 1 Mackey 498, at *547-549.

Scholars on the Rules of Evidence may still question this testimony, because the ex-wife’s opinions were based on marital communications. Apparently, the NSA is not the first to argue the “context over content” argument in court.

Other witnesses testified to fraudulent activity of Guiteau from the early and mid-1870s, after the Defense had introduced evidence of “insanity” that spanned Guiteau’s entire life. Guiteau had even testified on these events.

The Court held the rebuttal “sanity” evidence was admissible:

In this body of defensive evidence his moral nature and traits had been presented, as a means of showing that acts done by him must be accounted for by a conclusion of insanity. It was competent to show, in rebuttal, that the grounds on which this inference of insanity was based, did not exist, and to do this by exhibiting particular acts and conduct of the defendant, contemporaneous with the history produced on his part, which tended to disprove the existence of those grounds. If a conclusion might be drawn from his moral nature that his acts must be insane, it was relevant and proper to show that his real moral nature was one which did not call for such an explanation.

After comparing the evidence, as to particular acts, offered on both sides, we are of opinion that the evidence in rebuttal was responsive to the evidence in defense, and was admissible. It must be remembered that the killing of the deceased was admitted; the implication of malice had already been made when the prosecution rested their case. The issue now was whether the defendant was responsible for that act by reason of insanity. The application of his improper acts was limited, therefore, to that issue. For these reasons we find no error in the admission of the facts referred to, and for the same reasons we find none in that part of the charge to the jury which related to this point.

US v Guiteau, 1 Mackey 498, at *549.

The Insanity Defense has never been popular with the public. Cases frequently are tried in the press before they are tried in a courtroom. This causes public outcry when press driven results are not reached by the jury. However, it is rare for the public to actually listen to an entire trial, watch each witness or understand the jury instructions. As one Court stated, “As to the reasonableness of a defense being mounted in this case, we need look no farther than the “Twinkie” defense asserted in the Moscone-Milk murder case for an example of what may appear reasonable to a jury.” People v. Burns, 184 Cal. App. 3d 203 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1985)

The Insanity Defense had a substantial amount of scorn from the Prosecution in the trial of Sirhan Sirhan for the murder of Robert Kennedy. The closing argument by World War II hero and later California Court of Appeals Justice Lynn Compton stated to the jury that if they didn’t buy the psychiatric testimony, “then there’s nothing left but plain old cold-blooded first-degree murder.”

Despite the hostility toward the Insanity Defense, Courts have described the Insanity Defense over the years with effectively the same intent: 

[The] insanity defense, which is to save from criminal conviction one who lacks responsibility for his unlawful acts, has not been achieved on this record by the introduction of sufficient evidence to make that defense a substantial issue in the determination of appellant’s guilt or innocence.

United States v. Collins, 433 F.2d 550, 556 (D.C. Cir. 1970).

The California Jury Instructions state the following on the determining whether a Defendant is legally insane:

The defendant was legally insane if:

1. When (he/she) committed the crime[s], (he/she) had a mental disease or defect;


2. Because of that disease or defect, (he/she) was incapable of knowing or understanding the nature and quality of (his/her) act or was incapable of knowing or understanding that (his/her) act was morally or legally wrong.

None of the following qualify as a mental disease or defect for purposes of an insanity defense: personality disorder, adjustment disorder, seizure disorder, or an abnormality of personality or character made apparent only by a series of criminal or antisocial acts.

2-3400 CALCRIM 3450.

No one wants to see the guilty go free. No one wants to see the innocent convicted of a crime they were not responsible for committing. This is what makes the Insanity Defense a challenge, because rational human beings should not engage in the unlawful killing of another human being. When someone is murdered, we as a society want justice. Many have viewed the Insanity Defense as a way of escaping justice, when its intent is to ensure that those convicted of a crime actually had the criminal intent to do so.

Charles Guiteau may have had several sever personality disorders and delusions of grandeur. Was he insane? Some expects thought yes and some no. In the case of the jury, they saw a man who deliberately planned to murder President James Garfield.

Would the same result be reached today? I think so because of the substantial premeditated planning, target practice and stalking by Guiteau to kill President Garfield. Guiteau knew his actions would result in the death of James Garfield.

With that said, there would be substantial arguments over whether Guiteau had a disease that diminished his capacity to know right from wrong. Expert witnesses would argue that a personality disorder with imagined self-importance is not a disease under the law. However, it is hard to predict if Guiteau would have been tried like Sirhan Sirhan or not have been competent to stand trial like John Hinckley.

Guiteau & Defamation

History views Presidential assassins with a high degree of scorn.

In 1887, a Plaintiff sued over the Defendant calling him a “crank.” Since Garfield’s assassination, the word “crank” had obtained a meaning referring to Guiteau that meant a “crack-brained and murderously inclined person” from the media. Walker v. Tribune Co., 29 F. 827, 829 (C.C.D. Ill. 1887).

The Court granted a demur for the Defendant, citing Ogilvie’s Imperial Dictionary (1885 publication), which defined “crank” as “Some strange action, caused by a twist of judgment; a caprice; a whim; a crotchet; a vagary. Violent of temper; subject to sudden cranks. Carlyle.” Id.

What Garfield Means to the United States

VictoryGarfieldPresident Garfield is in second place for the shortest Presidency in US History. Garfield was one of the few successful Presidential dark horse candidates to get nominated by his party, joining the likes of James K Polk.

Why is he relevant today?

James Garfield represented everything honorable about the American Experience. The poor child with a brilliant mind. The young man who went to college and swept the floors, only to ultimately become president of the school. The daring Civil War General who knew the value of human life. The good husband and father.

America will always need people like James Garfield. A good man who did not seek higher office, but was sought out for it. We need the heroes who are willing to do the hard work to make our country better. That is why we should remember James Garfield.

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