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The Politics of Malice: Law, Science, and Violence against the State in Modern Europe

The presentation of evidence in the court of law often appeals to our notion that "the facts speak for themselves." But in the case of criminal motive, they hardly ever do. While the court of law has consulted expertise beyond juridical purview since the medieval period, many medical examiners of the modern era turned from the corpse to the criminal, not only investigating the cause of death but the cause of the deed. Practitioners of the nineteenth-century human sciences introduced new techniques for investigating criminal motives, and the modern court room became a site of increasingly vociferous debates about the drives, intentions, and feelings of the defendant. As a result, the juridical and punitive fate of the defendant was often determined by the emotional facts medicalized by expert witnesses.

Some of the cases in which criminal intent became most scrutinized and publicized — often inciting changes to the penal code—were in the cases of political crime, and specifically the assassination of government officials or regicide. The emotions animating political crime, however, were discussed differently than those behind domestic or civil cases, and increasingly became evidence for criminal insanity. Emotional character and characterization in the trials of politically motivated assassins reflect how emotions could be politicized, criminalized, and medicalized, with consequences extending beyond the courtroom and case itself.