Friday, March 25, 2011

Mooring establishes a defense: temporary insanity

How could a successful businessman, known for his refinement and poetic sensitivity, coldly shoot down his brother-in-law without provocation? To answer this question, two newspapers pondered Mooring’s state of mind. Tellingly, these Democratic journals ignored Mooring’s reputation for violent outbursts, probably because his targets had typically been Republicans and African Americans. Instead, scrutiny focused immediately on convenient explanations: temporary insanity and heavy drinking. 

As  news of the murder spread, some Mooring ally began laying the groundwork for an insanity defense.  The Columbus (GA) Enquirer learned from “a gentleman living in Florida” that Mooring had previously been “put into an insane asylum in North Carolina, but becoming better was released.”  Re-enforcing the supposition that Mooring had temporarily lost his senses, at least two anecdotes circulated describing Mooring’s utter shock when informed he had killed Charley Nichols.  The Enquirer provides a graphic depiction of the pathetic scene:  “after his arrest a friend approached Mooring, who was wrapped in a sheet and had a wet towel on his head, and asked him why he had killed Charles Nickols. Mooring burst out in a laugh, and regarded the question as absurd. He pretended to believe (or really did so) that he knew nothing of such an act, and had not done it. He asked, “What should I kill Charley Nickols for?”  The Courier presented the scene quite differently: “When told by a lady friend who was visiting him of the crime he had committed, he fainted and fell from his chair.”  Presumably one story and not both are accurate: it would be remarkable were Mooring stunned when hearing on two separate occasions that he had slain his wife’s young brother. Whatever Mooring’s reaction, fainting or incredulity, the examining justices of the peace found Mooring “to be in a condition neither mentally nor physically able to undergo an investigation.”

The Enquirer, in fact, initially voiced some skepticism about Mooring's purported insanity when employing the word “pretend.” In its first reports of the murder, the Enquirer’s editor considered whether Mooring “affected insanity or had really lost his mind.” In these early reports, the Enquirer mentioned Mooring alleged drinking in the days before the murder.  The Courier, presumably more reliable, did not mention intoxication and the Enquirer quickly dropped that theory.  Is this because drunkenness might have prevented pleading insanity as a defense?  

Mooring’s conduct in while in custody began to sway the doubters. He did not partake of food for several days, and became “the picture of emaciation and despair.” He was “so prostrated from extreme nervous excitability and want of food, (which he rejects) that he has been given quarters in a room at the jail under guard, and fears are entertained of his recovery.” While the implication is left that Mooring was horrified at his deed, this is not explicitly stated and there is left room to surmise his distress might actually be over his forthcoming trial and punishment. In any event, the Enquirer shortly was convinced to drop its doubt about Mooring’s insanity. The editor reported receiving a letter from “a gentleman of undoubted veracity who knew Mooring, and he has solved the inexplicable problem by giving us evidence most conclusive of the insanity of Mooring, and this misfortune has tainted his family and comes to him as an inheritance.”

Next: the trial. 

[Sources: Columbus Daily Enquirer, 7/31/74, 8/1/74, 8/2/74, 8/4/74, 8/21/74, 9/2/74, ; Atlanta Daily Herald 8/9/74]

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