Why you should care
John Wayne Bobbitt awoke to every man’s nightmare: a severed penis. The jury found his wife, the assailant, not guilty.
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast. In Season 4, The Thread explores the controversial criminal defense that ties together some of the most notorious crimes in history: not guilty by reason of insanity. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.
In the early morning hours of June 23, 1993, 26-year-old John Wayne Bobbitt woke up to every man’s greatest nightmare. His wife Lorena had severed his penis while he was sleeping. The ensuing surgery, media attention and criminal trials would captivate the country. Lorena claimed she was temporarily insane at the time of the attack.
The shocking tale of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt from the early 1990s remains seared into the memories of millions of Americans, but it is also part of a larger story — one that’s the subject of the second episode of season four of The Thread. In this latest season of OZY’s hit history podcast, we examine how some of history’s most notorious criminal defendants, including Bobbitt, are linked by a common thread: the insanity defense.
Twenty-five years ago, hundreds of reporters and caravans of satellite trucks converged on the historic Civil War town of Manassas, Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile also showed up, as did a local rock band who played 50 Ways to Cleave Your Lover. Cable television, including the new Court TV, also brought Lorena’s trial into homes across the nation.
Prosecutors tried to depict Mrs. Bobbitt as a vengeful wife who attacked her husband in anger. Lawyers for the defense could not argue that she had not severed her husband’s penis. But they could argue she lacked criminal intent — because she was driven by an “irresistible impulse” to commit the act. Bobbitt’s temporary insanity, it was claimed, was driven by years of physical and sexual abuse from her husband (John denied those claims).
At the end of the two-week trial, the judge instructed the jury that to find her not guilty by way of insanity they would have to find that she was “so impaired by disease that she was unable to resist the impulse to commit the crime.” After deliberating for just seven hours, the jury did just that, finding Bobbitt not guilty.