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Daniel Sickles Trial: 1859

Lafayefte Park Killing, Mobilizing The Defense, Cold-blooded Murder Or Justifiable Homicide?, Public Opinion Turns Against Sickles

Defendant: Daniel Sickles
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: James T. Brady, John Graham, and Edwin M.Stanton
Chief Prosecutor: Robert Ould
Judge: Crawford (First nameunavailable)
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: April 4-26, 1859
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The first use of a plea of temporary insanity by a criminal defendant and the unabashed appeal to the "unwritten law" to justify homicide made the Daniel Sickles case noteworthy in American legal history. It was equally significant for the irreparable damage done to Sickles' promising career as a leader of the Democratic Party.

Daniel Sickles' murder of Philip Barton Key was the kind of crime that piques the interest of all but the most austere newspaper editors. The lurid trial captivated the nation's press.

The menu for the trial was perfect: glamorous celebrities, political intrigue, spellbinding lawyers, the plot of an Italian opera, and an adulterous affair. The accused, Dan Sickles, was a prominent and well-connected 39-year-old Congressman from New York with a hair-trigger temper and a reputation as a ladies' man; the victim, Barton Key, was not only a close friend of his killer, whose political clout with President James Buchanan had secured Key's appointment as Washington's district attorney, but he also was the son of Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner". He was described as "the handsomest man in all Washington society" by the city's most prominent hostess and biggest gossip, Mrs. Clement Clay.

The very time and scene of the crime commanded the public's attention and sparked courtroom and editorial fireworks. Not even the most highbrowed Victorian could ignore a killing that occurred in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon on the sidewalk surrounding Lafayette Park, literally so near the White House it could have been witnessed from its front windows.

But it was the motive that added the most spice to the story. Sickles gunned Key down after discovering that he and the beautiful 22-year-old Mrs. Sickles had been having an affair, at times carrying on in the front library of the Sickles home.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882