A Miscarriage of Justice?

The acquittal, by reason of insanity, of John Hinckley in 1982, after he shot President Reagan and three others, was held by many to be a miscarriage of justice. In the decision’s wake, reforms were instituted on both the federal and state levels, tightening up (and in some cases eliminating) the insanity defense.

The interesting aspect of that hue and cry is that this was not the first time that allegations of misuse of that affirmative defense had been raised, and it was arguably not even the most egregious instance.

In follow up to this week’s earlier post about the medicinal use of alcohol during Prohibition, I bring you the now-little-remembered insanity case of George Remus. He was an erstwhile pharmacist and attorney, and then the major bootlegger in the Midwest during the 1920s. He had read the Volstead Act with a lawyer’s eye for loopholes. Accordingly, you will recall that Remus created a front corporation, the Kentucky Drug Company, Inc., through which he was able to procure and ship ‘medicinal’ booze all over southern and central United States. In less than three years, Remus made almost $40 million.

George Remus (courtesy Ohio Historical Society)

George Remus (courtesy Ohio Historical Society)

His is a name that is frequently suggested as being the inspiration for the character of Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. And true to his purported fictional character, with all that money, Remus threw some pretty lavish parties with his second wife, Imogene (the daughter of a prominent local family as well as his secretary, with whom Remus had been caught in flagrante delicto by first wife Lillian). This second marriage scandalized many of the Cincinnati bluebloods – but that didn’t stop the Brahmins from attending a number of Remus’ extravagant fêtes, including a notable 1923 birthday bash for Imogene in which she appeared in a daring bathing suit along with other aquatic dancers, serenaded by a fifteen-piece orchestra. Another notable soirée was the New Year’s bash from later that same year, at which one hundred prominent families were fed and watered, and then, as parting gifts, presented by Remus with diamond watches (for the men) and brand new Pontiacs (for the wives and mistresses).

The law finally caught up with Remus and he was convicted of violations of the Volstead Act, receiving, though, a relatively brief sentence. While incarcerated, he met an undercover federal agent to whom he inadvertently revealed much concerning his hidden money. That officer promptly resigned his post, started an affair with Imogene on the outside, and the two of them proceeded to pilfer and hide as much of the ill-gotten millions as possible while Remus sat behind bars. Imogene then graciously mailed Remus five twenty-dollar bills for his prison bank account.

Remus was finally sprung from prison, and Imogene filed for divorce. She donned an elegant black dress and hailed a cab on the day the court was to finalize the marital dissolution. En route to the courthouse, on 6 October 1927, Remus tailed his estranged wife, and then had his chauffeur force her cab off the road in Eden Park. Remus jumped from the Cadillac sedan brandishing a weapon. Imogene tried to escape on foot through rush-hour traffic, but the enraged former bootlegger caught her and fired four shots from his .45 directly into her abdomen in front of scores of onlookers near the Spring House Gazebo. He then calmly awaited the police.

Messy. And potentially difficult to defend.

The prosecutor in the subsequent murder trial was 30-year-old Charles Taft, the son of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft. It looked like an open-and-shut prosecution. But Remus, the former lawyer, defended himself on theories of “morally justified homicide” and then temporary insanity. The prosecution countered with prominent psychiatric expert witnesses saying that the defendant was entirely sane.

[sidebar: over the years I’ve heard several times from my forensic patients charged with murder that their victims “needed killin’.” Perhaps they were merely referencing Remus’ unusual theory of “morally justified homicide,” whatever that is]

What Taft hadn’t anticipated was Remus’ popularity in Cincinnati. After closing arguments, the jury only deliberated 19 minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. The legal community was shocked. The wiley Remus then paraded the same expert witnesses earlier employed by the prosecution and had them repeat their assertions that the respondent – Remus – was entire sane (and by extension not in need of commitment to an asylum). It worked. Remus was released after only six months, and had basically gotten away with murder, whether Imogene “needed killin’” or not.

Remus tried to get back into bootlegging in 1929, but lamented to colleagues that the market had been taken over entirely by “lowlifes and gangsters.” He lived the remainder of his life quietly and modestly, dying of natural causes at age 77 in 1952.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Leave a Reply