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Richard Hickock and Perry Smith Trial: 1960

Trial Leaves Questions Over Sanity

Yet the way the trial was conducted left lingering questions. A defense motion to have Smith and Hickock undergo comprehensive psychological testing before the trial had been denied by Judge Tate, who appointed three local general practitioners, not psychiatrists, to make the required examination. After a brief interview, the doctors judged the defendants sane.

Defense lawyers had sought the opinion of a more experienced psychiatrist from the state mental hospital, who diagnosed definite signs of mental illness in Smith and felt that Hickock's head injuries in a past auto mishap might possibly have affected his behavior. Yet the diagnosis was never heard in the Finney County courthouse.

Under the M'Naghten Test a defendant is ruled to be sane if he has sufficient mental capacity to know and understand what he is doing at the time he commits a crime, that it is wrong, and that it violates the victim's rights. The M'Naghten Test was applied strictly in the Hickock-Smith trial. By Kansas law, the psychiatrist was allowed only to give his opinion about the defendants' sanity or lack thereof at the time they were in the Clutter house. Under this constraint, the psychiatrist could only answer "yes" when asked if he thought Hickock was sane by the M'Naghten definition and "no" when asked if he could surmise what Smith's state of mind was at the time of the killings. No comment was allowed on the question of whether Perry Smith was mentally able to control his actions, regardless of his knowledge that, they were unlawful.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Richard Hickock and Perry Smith Trial: 1960 - Trial Leaves Questions Over Sanity, Appeals Fail To Overturn Conviction, Suggestions For Further Reading