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Townsend and the Test of Criminal Responsibility


The trial of Townsend for threatening to shoot Mr. Gladstone throws a curious and not uninstructive light on the English law as to the criminal responsibility of the insane. Judged by “the rules in MacNaghten's case,” Townsend ought certainly to have been sent to penal servitude. He knew that the weapon which he had in his hand was a pistol, and that when loaded with powder and ball it was capable of taking human life. He was well aware that the act which he contemplated was wrong, and that he would probably have to expiate his crime (if completed) upon the scaffold. He was thus (according to the strict letter of the law, delivered by the judges to the House of Lords, and by the House of Lords back again to the judges and to the country) perfectly acquainted with “the nature and quality” of his act. And yet he laboured under a degree of mental impairment which would have rendered his punishment a public scandal. The most curious circumstance in the whole case was the eloquence with which Mr. Justice Grantham, sublimely unconscious of the incongruity to which we have called attention, first laid down the rules in MacNaghten's case as undoubted law, and then practically proceeded to direct the jury to acquit the prisoner. The rules in MacNaghten's case are absurd in theory, but they may be manipulated with such ingenuity as to secure substantial justice in practice.

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2514-9946
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
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Townsend and the Test of Criminal Responsibility

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