HISTORIC NEW YORK STATE COURTHOUSES
Cayuga County Courthouse and the Case that Helped Establish the Insanity Defense in New York
Cayayuga County Courthouse
Location: 152 Genessee St., Auburn, NY
Houses: Supreme, County and Surrogate’s Courts, as well as the law library and the probation department.
Judicial District: Seventh
Built: Sometime between
1833-1836 for $30,000
Architect: Original structure designed by John I. Hagaman.
A 1922 fire gutted the courthouse and caused the dome to drop through the building. A third floor was later added.
Architecture: Greek Revival, with a large dome intended
to support a statue of “Justice.” Plans for the statue were
not realized due to the Panic
of 1837, which caused financial restrictions. Also abandoned were plans to adorn the
portico with statues of “Liberty”
Historic Status: Listed on both the national and state historic registries as well as the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
William Freeman was born in Auburn, N.Y., in 1824 to a former slave and a Native American woman. In 1840, Freeman was arrested for stealing a stable horse from his employer. Upon investigation, he was discharged by a magistrate and officials came to believe that another black man, Jack Furman, had committed the theft. While Furman was in jail awaiting indictment, he claimed Freeman had been involved in the crime. Freeman was arrested and imprisoned again.
Freeman escaped from jail. When apprehended shortly thereafter, he maintained his innocence saying he escaped because Furman planned to implicate him. Furman was freed, while Freeman was tried and convicted for theft and escape.
At the age of 16, Freeman was sentenced to five years of hard labor at Auburn State Prison. It soon appeared that Freeman had an alibi for the night in question, while Furman was later convicted of stealing a different horse. While in prison, Freeman continued to assert his innocence, and he was punished by a guard who beat him on the head with a piece of lumber.
Upon his release, Freeman returned to Auburn looking for work. Residents noticed he was now deaf and slow of wit, with a constant, vacant smile. He unsuccessfully sought warrants from two magistrates for the people who had sent him to prison. Freeman reportedly told his brother-in-law that “someone had to pay” for his conviction and imprisonment.
Not long after Freeman’s release, a wealthy farmer, John G. Van Nest, and his family were murdered just outside of Auburn. Freeman was arrested the following day and identified by a victim who survived the attack. While transporting Freeman to the county jail, authorities had to elude the angry mobs that wanted to kill him.
Many Auburn residents soon became convinced that Freeman had committed the brutal and apparently senseless murders after hearing William H. Seward raise an insanity defense at the murder trial of Henry Wyatt. In the Wyatt case, Seward had unsuccessfully argued that the inhumane treatment Wyatt received in Auburn State Prison made him insane and bent on revenge, causing him to kill a fellow inmate.
Seward was away when the Van Nest murders occurred, but his wife wrote to him about the case. After visiting Freeman in jail, Seward agreed to represent him.
The Murder Trial
Seward believed the defendant’s sanity should be addressed at the threshold of the criminal proceedings. When he pleaded Freeman “not guilty by virtue of insanity,” the battle of the “experts” began. A litany of doctors who worked in New York mental institutions testified, followed by Auburn residents who knew Freeman before and after his incarceration. Others, who interviewed Freeman in jail — including a reverend and a Sunday school teacher — also weighed in on his mental state. The judge left the issue of sanity up to the jury, which returned a verdict that Freeman was “sufficiently sane to stand trial.” Over Seward’s objection that this verdict was inconclusive, the trial continued.
On the day the murder trial began, Auburn residents burned Seward in effigy. Because of heightened publicity, State Attorney General John Van Buren, son of former President Martin Van Buren, prosecuted the case instead of the local district attorney. During the trial, the prosecution’s experts argued that Freeman was perfectly sane and that his slow speech and unemotional behavior was due to his descent from African slaves and savage Native Americans. Seward countered that there was a history of insanity in Freeman’s family.
The jury began deliberations on July 6, 1846, while a crowd outside shouted that Freeman should be crucified and Seward stoned. A guilty verdict was returned.
On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial, but Freeman died in his cell Aug. 21, 1847. An autopsy showed that Freeman suffered from advanced brain deterioration.
The reversal was in part due to the jury’s improper preliminary finding, which, according to the court, “was defective and did not directly find anything, and certainly not the point in issue.”
Seward, a former New York governor, went on to serve as U.S. Secretary of State in the Lincoln and Johnson administrations. Seward is credited with helping to write the Emancipation Proclamation and with making the purchase of Alaska from Russia.
A plaque in front of the courthouse reminds visitors of the Freeman trial. It reads: “In 1846, William H. Seward in Cayuga County Court House defended a man accused of murder and based his plea on the unprecedented grounds of insanity. Although scorned and humiliated by many for his stand at that time, history has since vindicated him as a man of principle, courage and foresight.”
The primary sources used for this article were “Historic Courthouses of New York State” by Herbert A. Johnson & Ralph K. Andrist (1977) and ”The Trial of William Freeman, for the Murder of John G. Van Nest” reported by Benjamin F. Hall, Esq. (1848).
Spring 2007 (PDF)
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