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John E. DuPont Trial: 1997

John E. DuPont Trial: 1997

Defendant: John E. DuPont
Crimes Charged: Murder, assault
Chief Defense Lawyer: Thomas Bergstrom
Chief Prosecutor: Joseph McEdigan
Judge: Patricia Jenkins
Place: Delaware County, Pennsylvania
Dates of Trial: January 21-February 25, 1997
Verdict: Guilty of third-degree murder and assault
Sentence: 13-30 years in prison

SIGNIFICANCE: The trial focused national attention on the insanity defense, particularly as used by wealthy defendants.

In January 1996 a media frenzy began when the news broke that John DuPont, an heir to the DuPont chemical fortune, was holding police at bay at his estate in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. DuPont had been accused of murdering Olympic wrestling gold-medalist Dave Schultz, and was believed not only to be armed, but possibly to have cached explosives on his farm. For many years DuPont had been an active supporter of Olympic athletes and had run a training facility for pentathletes and wrestlers at Foxcatcher Farm, about 15 miles west of Philadelphia.

The incident began on the afternoon of January 26, 1996, when DuPont shot and killed the 36-year-old Schultz. DuPont, who had recently been displaying animosity towards Schultz, went to the Schultzes' cottage accompanied by his security consultant, Patrick Goodale. Dave Schultz, who was working on his car in the driveway when the men arrived, greeted them. DuPont asked, "You got a problem with me?" and then shot Schultz three times with a. 44 Magnum revolver. He also pointed the gun at Goodale and Nancy Schultz, who was watching from the house.

A Standoff with the Police

DuPont then got into his car and fled to his mansion, where he barricaded himself inside, refused to surrender to the police, and held them off for two days. During the standoff he spoke to his attorney on several occasions. Finally police arrested him on January 28 when he left the house to repair his heating system. DuPont had complained that his house was cold and asked for permission to go outside to repair his boilers. What he did not know was that the police had turned off the heat in an attempt to lure him out of the house. Within a few minutes the SWAT team had him under arrest. The police then searched the house and discovered the murder weapon and other small arms, but no explosive devices.

DuPont's Mental Competency Debated

DuPont was charged with murder and assault. In February the court ordered a competency examination, and in September, Delaware County judge Patricia Jenkins ruled that John DuPont was mentally incompetent to stand trial, and ordered that he be sent to a state psychiatric hospital for compulsory treatment. Several psychiatrists eventually testified that DuPont was a paranoid schizophrenic who wove complicated conspiracy theories involving Tibetan Buddhists, the CIA, Nazis, and Jesus. In light of this testimony the judge declared the 57-year-old DuPont psychotic and unable to help his attorneys mount a rational defense. Judge Jenkins chastised both prosecution and defense attorneys for not seeking treatment for the defendant earlier. The judge ordered a hearing on the state of DuPont's mental health every 90 days until he was found competent to stand trial. DuPont's relations then petitioned the county court to obtain control of his finances, claiming he was no longer capable of managing them.

The Trial Finally Begins

Almost exactly a year after the crime, DuPont was found competent and the trial began in suburban Philadelphia. Dupont's lawyers did not deny that he killed Dave Schultz, but they argued that their client was insane at the time of the shooting and was suffering from severe paranoid schizophrenia. The prosecution argued that DuPont did know right from wrong at the time of the shooting. The prosecutor pointed to the fact that DuPont asked to speak to his attorney several times during the police standoff as evidence that he understood what was happening.

Witnesses who knew the defendant testified that his behavior had started to change about the time of his mother's death in 1988. He had become extremely security conscious and hired a firm in 1993 to provide protection on the estate. Despite the implementation of extensive security measures, DuPont claimed on several occasions that he was being spied on and that his life was in danger. That same year he installed razor wire inside the walls of his home to prevent anyone from hiding in the walls. He also hired excavators to dig up the property to search for tunnels be believed were being dug to his home. Several witnesses also told of his increasing drug and alcohol problems between 1988 and 1995. Nevertheless, he continued to manage the daily operations of his training facility during this time. He developed close relationships with some of the wrestlers and their families, and he took a dislike to others.

The defense presented extensive evidence that DuPont was paranoid and schizophrenic. This evidence focused on his delusional beliefs, particularly evident in his statements during the police standoff and at his examination afterwards that he was Jesus Christ, the Dalai Lama, and a Russian czar, just to name a few. The defenses expert witnesses opined that DuPont was legally insane at the time of the shooting. Experts for the prosecution, Drs. John O'Brien and Park Dietz, testified that they believed that DuPont did indeed suffer from mental illness, but that he was not legally insane at the time of the shooting.

Verdict: Guilty but Mentally Ill

On February 25, 1997, the jury found DuPont guilty of third-degree murder and simple assault, under Pennsylvania's guilty but mentally ill statutory scheme. In Pennsylvania, "guilty but mentally ill" means that a defendant who offers a defense of insanity in accordance with the rules of Criminal Procedure may be found "guilty but mentally ill," at trial if the trier of facts finds, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person guilty of an offense was mentally ill at the time of the commission of the crime and was not legally insane at the time. "Mentally ill" means that as a result of mental disease or defect, a person lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her conduct or to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of the law. Whereas, under the more widely known "not guilty by reason of insanity," the person who committed the crime is incapable of understanding the nature of his or her actions, or if he or she does understand them, cannot understand that they are wrong. The statutory maximum sentence for third-degree murder in the state of Pennsylvania is 40 years in prison.

On May 13, 1997, DuPont was sentenced to 13 to 30 years for the murder conviction. He also received a concurrent sentence of three to six months on the assault conviction and was ordered to pay costs incurred by the district attorney's office in connection with his prosecution.

The John DuPont case once again focused attention on the use of the insanity defense and was one of the first high-profile cases to be tried under the new "guilty but mentally ill" statutes that 12 states had enacted following John Hinckley's attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

Carol Willcox Melton

Suggestions for Further Reading

Ordine, Bill, and Ralph Vigoda. Fatal Match. New York: Avon, 1998.

Turkington, Carol A. No Holds Barred: The Strange Life of John E. DuPont. Atlanta: Turner, 1996.

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