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December 27, 2013

As fights over John Hinckley's fate continue three decades after his violent crime, what are enduring CJ legacies or lessons?

Reagan_assassination_attempt_3The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting recent Politico piece headlined "Hinckley home for the holidays."  Here are the basics:

John Hinckley will almost certainly be home for the holidays, which will bring much joy to his 86-year-old mother but not to the U.S. Justice Department.  No matter whether there has been a Democrat in the White House or a Republican, the Justice Department has argued against letting Hinckley out of the mental hospital where he has been incarcerated since 1982.

His family, lawyers and a number of psychiatrists and psychologists who have treated Hinckley over the years say he has responded successfully to treatment, is no longer a danger to himself and others, and that he should be allowed more and more days outside the hospital.

Hinckley had been allowed 10 days per month to visit his mother in Williamsburg, Va.  He is not allowed to make visits in Washington because the president of the United States lives in Washington and the last time Hinckley came across a president, Hinckley shot him. Hinckley is also not allowed to visit his sister in Dallas, because the home of former President George W. Bush is a 10-minute walk away.  Even in Williamsburg, Hinckley is trailed by Secret Service agents, and he must carry a GPS-enabled phone that tracks his whereabouts.

On average, a person convicted of a violent crime in America serves about five years in prison.  Hinckley has served 31 years in St. Elizabeths Hospital, even though he was found not guilty of any crime because a jury decided he was insane at the time he shot Ronald Reagan, press secretary James Brady, D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy....

Last week, a federal judge extended the amount of time Hinckley can spend outside St. Elizabeths to 17 days per month.  The seriousness with which Hinckley’s request for added visiting time was treated is indicative of how seriously the government still takes his case: Over a four-month period, lawyers battled for two weeks, and the judge’s decision was an incredible 106 pages long....

The hearing did provide some droll moments.  In arguing that Hinckley was not fit to be outside of his mental hospital for a longer period of time, the government said one of his girlfriends at St. Elizabeths was “floridly psychotic.”  To which Hinckley’s lawyer replied: “Who is he going to meet at St. Elizabeths?”

Hinckley’s case contains some valuable lessons:  The insanity defense is very rarely used in America and usually fails when it is used.  Hinckley succeeded, but what has it gotten him?  More than three decades in a mental hospital may be better than more than three decades in prison, but unlike a prisoner serving a sentence with a maximum number of years, Hinckley, 58, can be locked up in the hospital until he dies.

Before Hinckley shot Reagan, he had been stalking Jimmy Carter.  In October, 1980, Hinckley was arrested at Nashville’s Metropolitan Airport for concealing three handguns and 30 rounds of ammunition in his carry-on luggage.  He paid a fine of $62.50 and was released from custody.  Four days later, Hinckley, who had undergone psychiatric treatment for depression, went to Dallas, where he bought a gun and six bullets at a pawnshop for $47.  Hinckley used this weapon to shoot Ronald Reagan, James Brady and the two law enforcement officers.

Today’s Brady law, which was enacted in 1993 and requires background checks for some gun purchases, is named for James Brady and might have prevented Hinckley from buying that gun.  In 1988, his last full year in office, Reagan endorsed the Brady Bill, even though Reagan was not a fan of gun-control laws.  His personal affection for Brady might have had something to do with it, but Reagan also said it was a good idea to see if a potential gun buyer had “a record of any crimes or mental problems, or anything of that kind.”  The National Rifle Association condemned Reagan’s statement.

St. Elizabeths, built in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane, once housed 8,000 patients.  As the hospital crumbled from neglect, and as laws and attitudes about mentally ill people changed, the population dropped to its current 300 and a new hospital was built in 2010.   St. Elizabeths no longer needs all of its vast 350 acres, where feral cats still roam, some of which are cared for by Hinckley, who often visits PetSmart on his home visits right after he goes to Wendy’s.  About 176 acres of the property will be used for the new $3.4 billion headquarters complex of the Department of Homeland Security.

As most criminal law professors know, one of the legal legacies of Hinckley's case was a significant retrenchment of insanity doctrines in many states. But as Hinckley's own case may highlight, perhaps that it is ultimately a blessing and not a curse even for mentally unstable criminal defendants. And, as most gun control advocates know, Hickley's crime created a uniquely potent person and symbol in support of gun control laws. But as recent high-profile deadly shootings highlight, there is reason to perhaps fear that the US is unable or unwilling to pursue gun control laws that would be likely able to prevent mentally unstable persons from having access to firearms.

December 27, 2013 at 02:30 PM | Permalink


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"St. Elizabeths ... Hospital for the Insane, once housed 8,000 patients ...[now] 300"

Maybe we'd be safer if more were housed thereat.

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 27, 2013 4:20:53 PM

"Maybe we'd be safer if more were housed thereat."

They are housing the Department of Homeland Security on the grounds of the Government Hospital for the Insane. Seems fitting to me.

Posted by: Daniel | Dec 27, 2013 5:20:36 PM

I don't know why you would use a five-year average sentence for a generic "violent crime" as the comparator. Why not use the actual case histories of, for example, Squeaky Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, both of whom tried to assassinate Pres. Ford but (unlike Hinckley) didn't manage to even wound the intended target (Fromme didn't get a shot off; Moore got one shot off which wounded a bystander). They both did more than 30 years of actual prison time, and I would think Hinckley but for the insanity defense would have gotten a similar sentence and still be in. Further confirmation might be seen from the case of Arthur Bremer who shot and wounded a candidate rather than sitting president (Wallace during the '72 primaries) and did 35 years before being released. (I think all three of those would-be assassins got life sentences and got out early under whatever discretionary rules govern the fate of federal prisoners who got life sentences way back in the '70's, although I haven't double-checked that.) The possibility that someone who mounts a successful insanity defense could end up institutionalized for longer than the prison time they would have done had the defense failed may be real, but I don't think this particular crime is a good example.

Posted by: JWB | Dec 27, 2013 7:00:48 PM

I thought the same thing as JWB and appreciate the data.

Another blog flagging the black woman who attacked Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s. The last thing people found suggested she might still be alive as of a few years ago, in a home for the mentally ill. It was unclear when or if she died.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 27, 2013 8:42:43 PM

Over time my views on violent criminals and their punishment has changed. I was formerly opposed to the killing of defendants because I believed it offends Christian belief and particularly the Sixth Commandment. But, having followed the comments here I have changed my mind. Those who shoot someone should be shot. Firing squad of six so as to flaunt the Sixth Commandment. This Demerol and poison thing is too gross and not fitting. Think what it costs to take care of this so called nutcase named Hinckley. Had he been shot dead years ago we would not spend time and money deciding if he can vacation in the President's home town to be with his Aunt DoeDoe.

In the past, some of you commenters ridiculed my Sixth Commandment stance. I don't blame you. I agree that Christianity is a farce and that "do unto others" is ok.
But if any of you think that killing nutcases like Hinckley is violative of Christian beliefs then you must keep going to church. Be honest with yourselves. I will accept your criticism. I was a believer once too.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 27, 2013 11:49:12 PM

Lib: I like your sarcasm.

However, all mitigating factors are actually aggravating factors. So, yes, the insane murderers are the most dangerous of all, because they kill impulsively or for delusional reasons. In your sarcasm, not a single word about the 10% of murder victims killed by paranoid schizophrenics around the world. That fraction applies to high murder rate and to to low murder rate countries. So, in the US, they kill about 2000 people a year. One hears of their mass shootings, but not of the one by one murders of strangers, of family members, and of treatment teams. Why does the lawyer protect the insane, prohibits physical restraints, prevents involuntary treatment until a harm has happened followed by a trial employing 3 lawyers, a prosecutor, a defense lawyer, and a magistrate to decide on involuntary commitment? That insane person, you correctly, if sarcastically noted, generates massive government costs, and make work jobs for Democratic Party voters. These worthless jobs come at the cost of 1000's of lives a year, around the world. The self evident, that they are more dangerous than contract killers, is taboo.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 28, 2013 9:45:16 AM

L's sarcasm aside, there are various Christian views on the d.p.

Cf. Scalia with "Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment" by Osler, Mark (a friend of Doug Berman).

The statement was ridiculed since the same book that cites the commandment lists various capital crimes. Using the approach that Jesus used for other things -- e.g., the thing that go Jimmy Carter in trouble when he said he "lusted in his heart" and thus sinned, you can very well apply it strictly to ban the d.p.

It just is not a literal application of a command that given capital punishment was allowed was originally understood as "thou shall not murder." Or, kill in an illegitimate fashion.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 28, 2013 10:47:06 AM

It is etched in stone: Thou Shalt Not Kill. The thou shall not murder thing is from the Sears Roebuck bible. But, just because it was written in stone does not mean that it cannot be edited by Sears Roebuck. But my comment above was not meant to be sarcastic. If you believe in God, Christ and want to get into Heaven and avoid Hell or Limbo, then follow the Sixth. Me, I think we should shoot all shooters who kill. Rob all robbers. Rape rapists. Do unto others. You can castrate rapists but that might be beyond the Pale. But, be consistent. If you are a Christian do not take chances at the Pearly Gates and tell Saint Peter that you were reading the Sears Roebuck bible when you approved of your state's killing of criminals. He will scoff at the use of the words "execution of a murderer". But, take your chances. Maybe y'all can. But I believe if you kill somebody use a firing squad of six. None of this drug apCray.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 28, 2013 12:54:40 PM

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