Eigen receives selective grant to pursue research

Steven Viera ’16, News Editor

With Reporting by Abigail Quint ’15

Joel P. Eigen, Charles A. Dana professor of sociology, recently received a one-year fellowship from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) to pursue his research into crime and mental illness.

The fellowship will take Eigen to Australia, where he will write, teach, and conduct research on the mechanics of the insanity plea in the British legal system. As part of the fellowship, he will participate in research with the records of the British penal colonies in Australia.

The NEH offers a prestigious fellowship to scholars across the country who study disciplines within the humanities. Eigen, a criminologist, was selected for his research on the intersection of mental illness and criminal prosecution.

“I have always been tremendously interested in what happens when science meets law,” Eigen said.

While the NEH fellowship is highly selective, according to F&M News, F&M has two current NEH fellows in addition to Eigen: Bennett Helm, Elijah E. Kresge professor of philosophy, and Ann Steiner, Shirley Watkins Steinman professor of classics.

Eigen will be on sabbatical next year and will begin taking advantage of the resources available to him via the fellowship. In June, July, and August, he will go to Australia and study court records of insanity cases in addition to teaching a course at the University of Melbourne. Following that, he will return to America before going to England to verify some of his sources.

Eigen first became interested in insanity cases following the trial of John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan; a jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity, and he was entered into psychiatric care. The public focus on insanity and criminality sparked Eigen’s interest into the subject and led to the beginning of his research on insanity pleas, which he has studied for more than 30 years.

“People have said to me, ‘How can you spend 30 years reading criminal cases?’ and what I say to them is ‘How can you sit for eight hours and watch Law & Order?’” he joked.

Eigen’s research focuses on the British legal system through the 18th and 19th centuries, when insanity pleas became more common and based in science, with doctors and other medical experts coming into the courtroom to give testimony.

“There was quite a battle between the medical witnesses and the lawyers at the time over what the nature of insanity was,” Eigen said. “I wanted to see who won. In a way, I wanted to see whether the medical witnesses were effectively constrained by the box that the lawyers were putting them in, in terms of what they could testify about.”

When discussing how to present his research, Eigen noted the difficulty of doing a simple quantitative analysis and graphing the increase of insanity pleas in criminal trials—as well as success rate—because of the tremendous nuance and unique nature of each case.

“The problem is every trial is its own story, and the features of why any one jury might acquit or might convict very often have to do with the singular features of a particular trial,” Eigen said. “So, there’s no way really you can say that, ‘This person was acquitted because of this medical testimony or because of this medical term’ because the case might have been so pathetic that the jury used insanity not to convict the person.”

Eigen commented on his interest in the subject and how he continues to find it fascinating decades after beginning his research.

“There are few things more compelling to me than criminal trials,” he said. “They have tremendous drama, life or death often depends on them, and what you have is a very, very expert legal mind constructing a case to give to a jury. You’ve got a prosecutor who is trying to convince the jury of his view and the defense attorney who is trying to convince the jury of her view, and the jury has to pick. Which of these two stories are they going to follow?”

Sophomore Steven Viera is the News Editor. His email is sviera@fandm.edu.

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