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Author puts criminal minds on trial

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Romantic passion can be deadly, as this disturbingly intriguing legal history book demonstrates.

Lisa Appignanesi is a novelist, writer and visiting professor of literature and the medical humanities at King's College, London, England (she grew up in France and Canada). As chairwoman of the Freud Museum, Appignanesi is clearly qualified to write about the complicated psychological composition of the criminals she profiles.

She acknowledges having consulted with numerous psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and lawyers in the creation of her latest publication.

The result is a fresh perspective on tragic crimes "that grew out of passion" that takes readers on an action-packed journey through courtroom trials of the late-19th and early 20th century in Britain, France, and the United States.

Thoroughly researched and very well-written, this tome employs in-depth analysis of notorious crimes committed in the name of passion.

Statistics from author Ruth Harris cited in the book reveal that the "crime of passion" defence exploded in France beginning in the 19th century. In 1880 in Paris, out of 30 crimes in total, there were six crimes of passion, including a concert singer stalking her lover over many weeks and then shooting him. As of 1905, out of 100 crimes in total, 35 were crimes of passion.

Beginning in Brighton, England, in 1870, we learn about a devious perpetrator who attempts to murder the wife of her paramour with poison. In New York City in 1906, a multi-millionaire, in a jealous rage, shoots and kills a male audience member in the middle of a musical theatre performance at Madison Square Garden.

The author effectively weaves historical and legal analysis with the trials and crimes she's describing. She offers an excellent behind-the-scenes view of the legal system in the late-19th and early 20th centuries.

Appignanesi explains that in the early 20th century, courts and psychiatrists became enmeshed as expert witnesses were used to shed light on the actions and mental health of the accused.

Typical of Appignanesi's colourful prose is this passage about psychiatrists: "Theirs was an expertise founded on the very passions that sweep reason away, on vagrant emotions and erratic cognitive powers, on manias, delusions, delirium and automatisms. Their knowledge," she writes, "could serve the courts and inform justice, as well as protect society."

Appignanesi documents how using psychiatrists as expert witnesses in the courtroom "subtly changed our view of the human."

She observes that when psychiatric experts and media explored the motives in murder and attempted-murder trials, "transgressive sexuality, savage jealousies, rampant forbidden desires, passions gone askew, vulnerable suggestible hysterical minds were revealed to be aspects not only of those others we label mad but potentially of us all."

In today's Canadian justice system, an accused may be found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder. Trials of Passion traces the roots of that legal concept, examining the "power struggle that continues today between the law's definitions of insanity and the more complex understandings of the human that the mind specialists promulgate."

Lisa Appignanesi is correct, but not politically correct, when she states "Though the line between madness and badness becomes increasingly difficult to draw, the authorities all agree that the line is fundamental to any legal system."

It is this type of insight that makes Trials of Passion a compelling read for a wide audience.


Brenlee Carrington, a Winnipeg lawyer and mediator, is the Law Society of Manitoba's Equity Ombudswoman.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 8:21 AM CDT: Formatting.

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