Overwhelmingly public opinion will be on the side of federal prosecutors should they decide to try John Hinckley in the recent death of James Brady, who Hinckley shot 33-years ago while Brady served as President Reagan’s White House press secretary. Nevertheless, a successful prosecution would weaken our judicial system and perpetuate another assault on the rights of people with mental disabilities. These assaults are a basic theme of Mental Disability, Violence, Future Dangerousness: Myths Behind the Presumption of Guilt (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2013). [Brief excerpts without references that apply to the Hinckley affair appear below in bold italics, along with other related observations.]
Our Constitution was established to protect even the most despised individuals from wrongful prosecutions and other abusive governmental actions. Hinckley should be entitled to the full protections of our legal system, whether or not the public approves. To try Hinckley now, after he was found in 1982 to be not guilty by reason of insanity of the shooting that is alleged to have caused Brady’s death, would be a blatant injustice.
What makes matters much worse is that Hinckley already has been incarcerated for more than thirty years. Also, both his treatment team and the court overseeing his detention have determined that he has been rehabilitated and is no longer dangerous. These new trumped up charges would further demonstrate the federal government’s obsession to punish Hinckley. As noted in the previous essay, our government already has taken extraordinary measures to prevent his release from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where for many years he has been unjustly detained. Now that there is a possibility that Hinckley will become a free man, federal prosecutors are floating the idea of using James Brady’s death to permanently thwart Hinckley’s freedom.
Such a prosecution, if successful, would not only violate Hinckley’s right to fair judicial proceedings, but also substantially diminish the rights of every American. First, in order to pursue this ill-advised agenda, the federal government would have to convince a judge that double jeopardy is insufficient to prevent a defendant from being tried twice for the same criminal action. Based on revisionist history, prosecutors would likely argue that double jeopardy does not apply as long as the criminal charge is different. Thus, the not guilty by reason of insanity verdict that Hinckley received in the shooting of James Brady would be irrelevant because Brady’s death 33 years later created a new crime.
Second, to be successful federal prosecutors would have to convince a trial court to further embellish the legal notion of proximate causation at the expense of actual causation. A jury would have to conclude that Hinckley was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt based largely on expert testimony that an otherwise natural death, involving a myriad of possible intervening factors, could be reliably attributed to a shooting that occurred 33 years ago. A similar kind of attenuated logic allows mental health experts to testify about the dangerousness of defendants based on predictions about a future, which is unknowable.
How our legal system applies the concept of proximate causation, particularly against people with mental disabilities, often has produced arbitrary and scientifically sloppy and unsophisticated results. The main problem, as the psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has noted more generally, is that courts “somehow distinguish just one of the necessary conditions… as its cause and the others are mere enablers or helpers, even though all are equally necessary”…. By using a flawed method of framing reality to match …our beliefs…, the law can appear to be rationally and reasonably assigning total responsibility to individuals for illegal or socially inappropriate actions, whether or not the persons involved are only partially blame or responsible, and/or external intervening forces significantly influenced [the outcome]….
In addition, federal prosecutors would have to pretend that Hinckley was not insane in 1982, even though a jury found him to be so and the federal government has maintained ever since that he had a severe mental disorder, which has never improved sufficiently to justify his release. Unfortunately, such a pretense would not be the first time that a preposterous leap of logic about the insanity defense was used to convict a defendant with a severe mental impairment. The Georgia Supreme Court, for example, affirmed logically inconsistent verdicts in which a jury found a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity on a charge of murder with malice, yet the same jury was allowed to find him guilty but mentally ill of felony murder for the same criminal actions…With regard to felony murder, the defendant had told the state’s psychologist that as a convicted felon, he realized that in purchasing the firearm that he had used in the killing, he realized that he was violating the law…[T]he court found that while he was insane in forming the intent to commit murder, he was deemed to have “known” that as a felon he was prohibited from purchasing a firearm….
Hinckley should have been and still could be a positive illustration of the benefits of treatment and rehabilitation. Instead, if the federal government has its way, he likely will continue to be a symbol for the criminalization of persons with mental disabilities. Ironically—and unfortunately for the rule of law in our country—this predominantly inhumane predisposition towards people with mental disabilities is a situation Hinckley inadvertently helped create when he attempted to assassinate a president of the United States, who was committed to a law and order platform.
1. Nick Corasaniti, “Coroner Is Said to Rule James Brady’s Death a Homocide, 33 Years After a Shooting,” The New York Times (Aug. 8, 2014).