In the annals of American criminals, John Hinckley Jr. ranks as one of the most heinous.
Technically, he committed no crimes. But that makes him no less violent and despicable than, say, O. J. Simpson.
It was bad enough that Hinckley escaped punishment for his actions when he was found “not guilty by reason of insanity” in his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Now, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman of Washington has compounded the injustice by ordering Hinckley released from a government psychiatric hospital.
You’re a free man, Mr. Hinckley. Have a nice day.
Let’s not forget what he did.
On March 30, 1981, Hinckley was lying-in-wait outside the Washington Hilton Hotel armed with a fully loaded .22 caliber Rohm RG-14 revolver with exploding “Devastator” bullets. As President Reagan emerged, Hinckley fired six shots in rapid succession. Police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy were shot in the back and chest, respectively. Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head, critically wounded. He suffered severe brain damage.
Hinckley’s final bullet ricocheted off the President’s waiting limousine, penetrating his chest and lodging a mere fraction of an inch from his heart. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, perilously close to death. After two hours of surgery, the bullet was removed and the President’s life was saved.
It was pure luck that that Hinckley’s bullet stopped just shy of tearing into President Reagan’s heart. The course of history might well have changed dramatically had Hinckley succeeded.
The case against Hinckley was clear and strong. But Hinckley, like O. J. Simpson, was armed with money. Specifically, his parents’ oil wealth. They hired a top criminal defense team that argued insanity. Which, considering the evidence, should have been a joke.
But back in 1982, the legal framework of the insanity defense favored the accused. Once invoked, the burden shifted to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hinckley wasnot insane. It was completely backwards and inimical to common sense. Nevertheless, it should have made no difference because the evidence of sanity was obvious and overwhelming.
Of course, the defense retained experts who opined that Hinckley suffered from schizophrenia and other mental disorders that were so severe he did not understand right from wrong. That is the legal standard and the pointy-headed shrinks bought into it… hook, line and sinker. In my experience as a defense lawyer, you can buy an expert to say just about anything. So, no surprise there.
And, yes… prosecutors hired their own experts who said just the opposite. But the evidence of Hinckley’s sanity transcended the experts. He left an extensive paper trail proving his elaborate planning and premeditation to commit murder. He penned letters and notes outlining his intended design to kill the President. He admitted its wrongfulness. His actions were both clear-headed and deliberate. Hinckley’s planning was careful and cautious. Cold and calculating. The very definition of sanity.
Did Hinckley suffer from a mental illness and/or personality disorder? Maybe. Was it severe and debilitating? Not for a minute. Did he understand right from wrong? Unmistakably.
But juries are easily misled, manipulated and fooled by skilled defense attorneys. They are sometimes naïve and gullible. Just ask O. J. Simpson. Or Michael Jackson, were he alive. They know that justice can be subverted. The scales are not balanced.
And that is precisely what happened on June 21, 1982 when the jury returned its verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity” on all 13 criminal charges. Hinckley dodged prison and took up residency at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Setting Hinckley free is dictated by federal statute, 18 U.S. Code, Section 4243 (d):
“A person found not guilty by reason of insanity… has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that his release would not create a substantial risk of bodily injury to another person due to a present mental disease or defect.”
So, the fundamental question is whether Hinckley poses a substantial risk of harm. It requires a subjective judgment by Judge Paul L. Friedman, who was appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton. Importantly, the law allows the judge enormous latitude and discretion.
He can listen to the experts. But really… how reliable are they? After all, at trial several declared Hinckley unquestionably insane, while others said he was certainly not. Get the picture? They don’t know. At best, they are merely guessing. Or hoping.
More revealing, perhaps, is how Hinckley has behaved during his time at St. Elizabeth’s. Let’s review. He exchanged letters with serial killer Ted Bundy. He sought the address of mass murderer, Charles Manson. He continued his obsession over actress Jodi Foster, smuggling her photos and other materials into his room. In 2009, prosecutors objected to supervised visits to his mother’s home because, they argued, Hinckley still posed a danger to others and had unhealthy and inappropriate thoughts about women.
As recently as 4 years ago, the Department of Justice opposed Hinckley’s release, repeating its belief that he presented a serious threat to the public. DOJ argued that Hinckley was known to deceive his doctors. What a surprise. Hinckley eventually caught on and wised up. He began to behave. Or at least he pretended to. But is it the same phony act that allowed him to fool a jury?
In attempting to divine whether Hinckley will try to kill or harm again, we should consider relevant statistics. They are instructive.
On the low end, a study by the Pew Center on The States found that 43 percent of convicted felons find themselves back behind bars within 3 years after their release. The number jumps by 20 percent for those with mental illness. On the high end, a report by the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 77 percent of released prisoners were arrested again within 5 years. The B-J-S report seems more comprehensive and reliable.
So, from a statistical point of view, it is probable or likely that Hinckley will harm someone again. Not good. And when you consider that an estimated 1,600 people are murdered each year by individuals with mental illness, it is truly frightening.
And yet, Judge Friedman assures us that Hinckley’s doctors are persuaded that his “psychotic symptoms, delusional thinking or violent tendencies” are in remission. We are supposed to be comforted by that? Look up “remission” in any medical treatise and you’ll learn it can be a temporary decrease in the manifestation of a disease.
For all we know, Hinckley’s remission could be fleeting. What if he stops taking his prescribed medication? He could turn violent and deadly in an instant. How would the judge or law enforcement know? Answer: they would not. There are numerous cases of people like Hinckley who have repeated their crimes after abandoning their meds.
Judge Friedman, in his 103 page opinion, seems to accept as faith the doctors’ conclusion that their patient “presents no danger to himself or to others in the reasonable future”. As opposed to what? The unreasonable future? What does that even mean? Now? Tomorrow? Next week or next month? It is the kind of vacuous language psychiatrists are addicted to using. And it is utterly meaningless when lives are in jeopardy.
There are some actions which are so evil, the perpetrator should never be set free. Under any circumstances. This case is one of them.
Judge Friedman had the discretion and power to keep John Hinckley Jr. locked up. His decision to set him free seems more than reckless.
It is a dangerous gamble with human life.
Gregg Jarrett is a Fox News legal analyst and former defense attorney.