November 20, 2003,
In the latest lunacy to blacken America's legal system, a lawyer representing John Hinckley asked a federal court to grant President Reagan's would-be assassin ten unsupervised visits to his parents' Williamsburg, Virginia home. Since the Secret Service monitors Hinckley, attorney Barry Levine told U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman November 17: "Without doubt, he is the least dangerous person on the planet."
American juries need a new tool to stop such high-level madness. Federal and state lawmakers should empower jurors to find defendants "guilty but insane."
As it stands, the March 30, 1981 near-murder of Ronald Reagan, White House press secretary James Brady's brain trauma and resulting paralysis, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy's pierced liver, and Washington, D.C. policeman Thomas Delahanty's perforated neck all...sort of...just happened. Hinckley's claims of mental illness led a D.C. jury to find him not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21, 1982. This created the metaphysical anomaly wherein some 230 million Americans repeatedly watched news footage of these shootings while eyewitnesses saw police and Secret Service agents disarm Hinckley and whisk him to jail in manacles. And yet, magically, he was acquitted. So who pulled the trigger of Hinckley's Roehm .22-caliber revolver? Perhaps the ghost of Lee Harvey Oswald did it.
A guilty-but-insane verdict would offer several vital benefits.
The first is epistemological. Since Hinckley, now 48, was found not guilty of shooting four human beings, as a journalist, I hesitate to assert that he did so. Writing that Hinckley did something of which he was exonerated although his culpability is otherwise universally accepted potentially could expose me to libel charges. Such caution should be unnecessary. A guilty-but-insane verdict would let society, history, and the law declare specific perpetrators responsible for particular criminal acts. Victims of lawlessness and their families could comfort themselves in knowing that individuals were convicted for their wrongdoing.
Second, a guilty-but-insane verdict would assure that the criminally insane experience long-term segregation from civilization. Rather than enjoy weekend getaways, unhinged gunmen ruled guilty but insane would receive as much psychiatric care as medicine and mercy merit. If they remained mentally ill, they would continue their treatment. If they regained their sanity, however, they promptly would be transferred to prison to endure the consequences of their misdeeds.
Third, since those who receive this verdict would follow clear paths from therapy to punishment, crime victims and their families would not have to suffer the emotional agony of watching these lawbreakers attend numerous hearings where their freedom is debated and sometimes granted. Such proceedings amplify the grief and anxiety of victims and survivors. This, in a word, is unjust.
It would be far better for the Bradys, Delahantys, McCarthys, and Reagans to sleep peacefully knowing that John Hinckley never will walk free again. Plagued by mental illness, he would get psychological attention. If and when he returns to mental health, however, he would get a one-way ride to a regular prison to serve a likely life sentence for almost killing the president of the United States, a key West Wing adviser, and two men dedicated to their protection.
So how is Hinckley handling all this? Not swimmingly, according to President Reagan's son.
Hinckley's doctors Ron Reagan Jr. said on ABC News November 17 "took a look in his cell and found out he was pen pals with [serial killer] Ted Bundy, [Unabomber] Ted Kaczynski, Charlie Manson, I believe, and they found a stash of photographs of Jodie Foster," the Academy-Award-winning actress who Hinckley aimed to impress by shooting Reagan.
"Psychiatry is a guessing game, and I do my best to keep the fools guessing about me," Hinckley wrote in his diary in 1987. "They will never know the true John Hinckley. Only I fully understand myself."
John Hinckley is either crazy or crazy like a fox. But the "not guilty by reason of insanity" verdict is simply bananas, as this latest hearing proves beyond a reasonable doubt. Justice requires a guilty-but-insane finding so that tomorrow's John Hinckleys stay either in straightjackets or prison stripes, not at their parents' homes or worse on the prowl for fresh prey.
Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.