Charges in James Brady's homicide could prove tough

This March 30, 1981 file photo shows a U.S. secret service agent with an automatic weapon watching over James Brady, after he was wounded in an attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan in Washington.

This March 30, 1981 file photo shows a U.S. secret service agent with an automatic weapon watching over James Brady, after he was wounded in an attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan in Washington.  (AP)

Prosecutors attempting to bring charges against John Hinckley Jr. in the recent death of former White House press secretary James Brady may have a tough time, despite the fact that Brady’s death was ruled a homicide, an attorney and law professor say.

District of Columbia police said Friday an autopsy states the cause of Brady's death Monday was the gunshot wound to the head he suffered in 1981 during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and its health consequences.

Members of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Homicide Branch, the United States Attorney’s Office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are reviewing the case, according to a police press release. However, bringing new charges against the 59-year-old Hinckley in Brady's death seemed unlikely, at least two people told the Associated Press.

"I think it (the medical examiner's ruling) will mean nothing," long-time Hinckley attorney Barry Levine said. "No prosecutors will bring such a case. The notion that this could be a successful prosecution is far-fetched. There is no legal basis to pursue this."

During the assassination attempt Hinckley shot Brady, who lived through hours of delicate surgery and further operations over the years, but never regained normal use of his limbs and was often in a wheelchair. He died Monday at 73.

The autopsy revealed the cause of death to be “a gunshot wound and consequences thereof,” the police statement said, and the death was ruled a homicide. District police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said the department was notified of the homicide ruling Friday.

Tung Yin, a professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, said Friday that it's rare that the act that could be considered the cause of a murder occurred so long ago.

"It seems a little bit unprecedented," Yin said of the Virginia medical examiner's ruling. He said such cases more likely involve a person in a coma who dies some time later.

He said bringing such a case could cause problems for prosecutors, because Hinckley was found was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

"A jury has already concluded on the same incident that he (Hinckley) was not guilty. Nothing today changes that," Yin said, even if prosecutors say Hinckley is no longer insane. "That doesn't change what he was 33 years ago."

Hinckley attempted to assassinate Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981, just two months into the new president's term. Reagan nearly died from a chest wound. Three others, including Brady, were struck by bullets from Hinckley's handgun.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity of all charges in a 13-count indictment, including federal counts of attempted assassination of the president of the United States, assault on a federal officer, and use of a firearm in the commission of a federal offense, as well as District of Columbia offenses of attempted murder, assault, and weapons charges. The District of Columbia offenses included charges related to the shooting of Brady.

William Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, said the office "is reviewing the ruling on the death of Mr. Brady and has no further comment at this time."

Officials at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where Hinckley is a patient, have said that the mental illness that led him to shoot Reagan in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster has been in remission for decades. Hinckley has been allowed to leave the hospital to visit his mother's home in Williamsburg, Virginia, and can now spend more than half of his time outside the hospital on such visits.

Besides partial paralysis from brain damage, Brady suffered short-term memory impairment, slurred speech and constant pain.

Brady undertook a personal crusade for gun control after suffering the devastating bullet wound. The Brady Law, named after him, requires a five-day wait and background check before a handgun can be sold. President Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1993.

The Associated Press contributed to this report