The Yale Murder - changed how we look at temporary insanity

Mar 8, 2005 (Updated Mar 8, 2005)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Made use rethink our insanity pleas in court. Well written. Historical value.

Cons:It's an older book. May be hard to locate.

The Bottom Line: As we continue to look at our treatment of crimes/criminals and what is fair for all involved, this is a good book for thought.


Richard Herrin beat his girlfriend to death with a hammer as she was sleeping in her bedroom at her parent’s home. The murder is known as “The Yale Murder,” because Herrin was a Yale graduate and his girlfriend was enrolled as a student.

Although this case dates back to 1977, the murder and this book are important, because this case and the writings about the case had an impact on society and attitudes toward the insanity defense—specifically the temporary insanity defense.

In the end, Herrin was convicted of manslaughter and not first degree murder. The argument were complex.

The defense first played off Herrin’s background. He grew up in a minority neighborhood in Las Angeles. With the cards stacked against him, Herrin was able to keep his record clean, to succeed, and to be granted entrance to and scholarship assistance to attend an Ivy league school.

The gist of the case was that Herrin was a good person who simply snapped, because his girlfriend expressed a need to see other men.

Bonnie Garland began dating this senior student when she first arrived at Harvard as a member of the priviledged class. Once she became involved in a traveling singing group and once she pulled away a bit and focused more on her studies, she felt that it was important to keep her options open and explore. Being totally focused on a relationship had not allowed her to grow much. The separation (when Herrin went to Texas for grad school) opened many new doors that a very young student might miss when totally absorbed with a relationship. She did not write off Herrin. In fact, he was a guest in her home when he decided that she must die and that he would follow by suicide.

Herrin had one girlfriend before Bonnie. He left that relationship with very hard feelings for the girl who also felt the need to see others. He remained very bitter about this first love and stayed rather fixated until Bonnie filled this void. He was determined that Bonnie would not slip through his fingers as the first girl had. Clearly, his first and second relationships were smothering and not healthy for either the girls or for Herrin.

While it’s no uncommon for college romances to be pretty dramatic at times, most young men and women simply learn, grow, and move on. A relationship that may work at one point may not be ideal for the long haul. Though it can be hard to accept, that is simply the reality.

In the case of Herrin, he could not make a life based on his own future goals and without a partner. While he could have spent time on his graduate studies and focused his extra energy in productive ways or could have established some other meaningful relationships both with females and male friends, he opted to sit and stew about the woman far away on singing trips overseas and then back at his alma Mata.

Uninvited, Herrin made the trip back east to see Bonnie. Though she avoided him, she did ultimately invite him back to stay at her home. In her own bedroom after she turned in to sleep, Herrin searched the house for a tool to kill the girl. He found a hammer and beat her in the head repeatedly as the parents were sound asleep downstairs. He then ran away covered in blood with plans to commit suicide. Or, that is what he later said. Frankly, the “I was boo-hoo going to kill myself” is a rather lame lament coming from someone who could and did murder but could not manage to end his own life. I’ve heard this threat several times with men hoping to force women to stay in bad relationships. It’s a cheap shot that I don’t tolerate.

Herrin ended up at a Catholic church he just happened across where he confessed his sins. It’s not like this whole thing was NOT going to be figured out. The priest did work with Herrin and made the calls to confirm and then the arrangements for Herrin to turn himself in. In fact, the family discovered the death of the daughter based on these reports. They slept through the murder and only knew they lost a daughter after a call requesting that they check on her. She was alive when they went upstairs but died shortly after.

Both the Catholic church and the Yale community gathered forces behind Herrin. They provided monetary support as well as coming out in force for the trial. He got the victim treatment while the Garland family were left hanging as the case in many high profile trials. This story, in part, helped victims become a bit more organized for future such cases. It really is a shame that do-gooders put so much energy into saving those that really do not deserve the assistance while totally overlooking the real victims—the ones that will forever have a void where that loved one is simply dead and gone. Hitting Herrin with a hard conviction would not bring Bonnie back, but it would suggest that her life had value. To call beating a sleeping young woman in the head to death and then calling that manslaughter is simply beyond comprehension.

Some interviews with Herrin suggest that he thinks that he has paid his dues and should be allowed to continue on with his life. He sounds like he has totally bought into the idea that he is the real victim as a child of poverty who simply snapped one day and did something not so nice. In all likelihood he is out on the streets now though I have not read any updates on the case. All I can say is woe to any woman who gets hooked up with a guy who murders and then thinks that the murder is a result of his own personal circumstances. Had he been, in fact, mentally ill, then perhaps there could be some reason to think that he could make changes. Given that this was billed temporary insanity but based on a history of odd sounding expectations about relationships, I sure would not consider Herrin a good bet for rehabilitation.

Another interesting thing about Herrin and his growth (if you can call it that) is that he rejected his religion. Being Catholic served his purposes as he planned his way into the Ivy League. Priests and nuns were very supportive and out in force at the trial. This clearly worked to his advantage. Now that he is through the rough part, he considers himself an atheist. I must wonder what the members of the church who stood behind him must feel about this turn of events.

Peter Meyer (the author of the book) covers the trial in rather typical true crime format. The story covers the background, relationship, the murder, and the trail. Meyer’s book is well researched in general and well written. It is definitely a cut above the rip and writes that often land on the sales racks today. In addition to covering the case, he adds, at the end, some thoughts about the justice system and about the temporary insanity defense. He notes changes which were only then being considered at the time. Today, it would be much more difficult to pull off this hand slap offered to a cold blooded murderer. In part, the case of Richard Herrin fueled this reexamination. It was simply hard to buy that he had this one moment of insanity while being able to locate the family hammer and then flee the scene. Clearly, he knew that it was not right to beat his girlfriend to death even if he did go on and on about her being his whole life. Most people do not destroy those people (or even things) that do matter to them.

Though the book is dated and though the style can be a bit 70ish, I would consider this an important book in the genre of true crime. The project was both well executed and has had historical significance and an impact on how we view murders and murderers today. Anyone interested in crime, the legal system, and in victim rights would be well served by checking out or buying a copy.


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