A Psychology Professor's Dark Past Raises Questions about the Insanity Defense
Troubling issues over the insanity defense have emerged amid stunning revelations about what became of a teenager who killed his family 46 years ago in Georgetown, Texas. The ghastly killings by self-styled peace activist James Wolcott, then a precocious fifteen year old, were virtually unheard of at the time in small-town America -- and especially in Georgetown, then a sleepy college town of nearly 5,000, located 30 miles north of Austin, the capital.
Shocked residents defined Georgetown as what it was like before and after the gruesome killings of biology professor Gordon Wolcott, his wife Elizabeth, and their daughter Libby, according to the Georgetown Advocate, a weekly newspaper that recently published a widely cited article on what became of James Wolcott -- a youth who seemed remorseless.
At around midnight on August 4, 1967, Wolcott got high by sniffing glue, and then went on the bloody rampage he'd planned for at least a week. He fired two bullets into his father's chest as he read in the living room. Gordon Wolcott headed the biology department at Southwestern University; and in one crime-scene photo, his hand is on a blood-spattered carpet inches from the book he was reading on the civil rights movement, James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time." Next, the teen entered his 17-year-old sister's bedroom, shooting her in the chest and face. Libby Wolcott was an officer in her high school class and had been expected to be its valedictorian. Finally, he entered his mother's bedroom, shooting her twice in the head and once in the chest. Elizabeth Wolcott, an outgoing woman active in church activities, died in a hospital a short time later.
What triggered Wolcott's murderous rage? Besides months of glue sniffing, he was upset that his father had ordered him to get a haircut and forbidden him from wearing anti-war buttons or attending a peace rally in Austin to protest the Vietnam War. The teenager also complained that his mother chewed her food too loudly, and he disliked his sister's "accent."
Ultimately, Wolcott claimed his family was driving him crazy and destroying him -- and so he killed them in the belief that he was acting in "self-defense," according to depositions, court records, and interviews cited by the Advocate. A friend of Wolcott's was quoted as saying that the teen "was always talking about freedom and wished he could live so no one could bother him." A voracious reader, Wolcott had an IQ of at least 134, and his book-filled room contained titles by Ian Fleming, anti-establishment poets, and by authors of science fiction and fantasy, the Advocate noted.
Tried as an adult, an all-male jury found Wolcott to be insane -- a paranoid schizophrenic -- and thus not guilty. He was sent to a state mental hospital, and after that he disappeared from the headlines -- until two reporters from the Advocate, Ann Marie Gardner and Cathy Payne, tracked him down in Decatur, Illinois. There, under the name James St. James, he is a popular and award-winning psychology professor at Millikin University -- a pony-tailed man who heads the Behavioral Sciences Department. He is said to be an atheist, though the tenured professor does not impose his religious views on his students.
Interestingly, Wolcott spent only six years at Rusk State Hospital in Nacogdoches, Texas, but he wasn't confined to the hospital around the clock. Martin McClain, son of the defense lawyer who defended Wolcott, told the Advocate that "one of Wolcott's psychiatrists felt he didn't deserve to be incarcerated and invited James to live in his own home"; and so the doctor and his wife became "surrogate parents" and apparently trusted the teen around their family.
In 1974, after six years at Rusk, Wolcott was declared to be sane. A jury then sent him free after deliberating for ten minutes. Ironically, Wolcott suddenly found himself to be a young man of means, because as his family's only surviving member, he inherited his parents' estate and began collecting a monthly stipend from his father's pension fund.
Wolcott subsequently changed his name and went onto live an utterly normal and law-abiding life, at least from outward appearances. He earned a Ph.D in psychology from the University of Illinois in 1988 and then joined Millikin's faculty. And he kept his dark past a secret until Gardner and Payne showed up.
Meeting St. James at a popular eatery near Millikin, Gardner initially claimed she wanted to talk about psychology, a benign bit of journalistic deceit intended to draw him out. St. James, she wrote, "was every bit the picture of a classic hippie; casual air, long pony tail, and a Grateful Dead sticker on his aging pickup truck." In a sense, it was a mirror image of the anti-establishment persona that St. James (as James Wolcott) had embraced as a teen and that had animated his desire to kill the family he hated in order to set himself free.
As St. James ate a chicken pot pie, Gardner eased into what she really wanted, relating: "I talked about doing research on atypical psychology and said 'I came across some information in, um, Central Texas...' His fork stopped - for a geologic age. He never denied who he was, and I never said any words like Wolcott, killing, or glue, and the conversation went on pretty much as it had before. We talked about 90 minutes and although he gave me absolutely nothing new about the crime, I knew more about him when we were done, including when he was truthful, avoiding the subject, and lying."
She didn't elaborate, though she added: "I told him I was considering writing a book and he said he didn't care. When I asked if he'd just help me get to the truth he gave me an immediate 'No.' I then said it would be hard to write a truthful book about him without his input. He said I should 'walk away and do something else...' I found it interesting that he cleaned his plate completely, while I only ate three bites of mine."
And in parting comments, the Advocate noted that St. James "may never share the real 'why' with anyone and really doesn't care if we are curious. Although many have wondered what happened to him, he stated emphatically that he is 'profoundly uninterested in what people in Georgetown think of him.' Rest assured, it is not likely James Wolcott (or St. James) will ever attend a reunion."
They expected to see a monster, yet Gardner and Payne seemed in the end to be unsure of what they saw; whether Wolcott, in other words, is a redeemed man or a clever sociopath who fooled everybody -- his psychiatrists, two juries, and everybody who knows him as James St. James.
Anatomy of a Murder
What role did James Wolcott's evident narcissism, reflected in his self-absorption and embrace of the peace movement (and vanities of that era) have on his mind? Lots of kids sniff glue and do drugs. Very few of them murder their families in cold blood while they're high. If the psychiatric diagnosis was wrong, that opens up the possibility of St. James being a likeable sociopath, a man comparable to John List, the New Jersey accountant who murdered his family. List established a new identify, remarried, and lived a new life that was remarkably ordinary and law-abiding.
The insanity defense figured prominently into the 1958 novel (and 1959 movie) "Anatomy of a Murder" -- a veritable guidebook on how to get away with murder by gaming the criminal-justice system. Author John D. Voelker, writing under the pen name Robert Traver, was a Michigan Supreme Court Justice who was troubled by the insanity defense and assorted legal trickery; and his novel (and subsequent movie of the same name) contains some memorable scenes reflecting his unease. Defense lawyer Paul Biegler, the novel's protagonist, gamely suggests to a quick-tempered Army officer (who shot a bartender in front of many witnesses) that temporary insanity might be a possible defense. He explains, "Well, insanity, where proven, is a complete defense to murder. It does not legally justify the killing, like say self-defense, say, but rather excuses it."
Lt. Frederick Manion is intrigued and asks how long he might be in a mental hospital. "Months, maybe a year," Biegler replies. "It really takes a bit of doing. Being D.A. so long I've never really had to study that phase of it. I got them in there; it was somebody else's problem to spring them. And it didn't dawn this defense might come up in your case."
St. James' former students are shocked by the revelations, yet most are standing behind their professor, and so is Millikin; it issued a statement saying: "Millikin University has only recently been made aware of Dr. St. James' past. Given the traumatic experiences of his childhood, Dr. St. James' efforts to rebuild his life and obtain a successful professional career have been remarkable. The University expects Dr. St. James to teach at Millikin this fall."
Of course, the murders were far more traumatic for St. James' father, mother, and sister.
In defending James Wolcott, prominent Georgetown lawyer Will Kelly McClaind is said to have aged ten years during the six months that he handled the case. He took it reluctantly, in part because he was troubled that "folks wanted to lynch the kid," his son, Martin, told the Advocate.
Similarly, the fictional Paul Biegler had his own misgivings, even while doing his job and advising the guilty-as-hell Lt. Manion of his legal options. "I had told my man the law," he related, "and now he had told me things that might possibly invoke the defense of insanity. It had all been done with mirrors. Or rather with padded hammers."
St. James may find that openly discussing his past, in the spirit of truth-seeking expected from a professor, may help him regain some of the credibility he lost now that his dark past has finally caught up with him.