Matthew T. Mangino
May 15, 2015
Rarely in American history has a person who made an attempt on a president’s life ever been released from custody; and never has a person who actually shot a president been free to walk the streets. That may soon change. A federal judge will decide whether John W. Hinckley Jr. may be released after 34 years in custody.On March 30, 1981, Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan, with the intent to assassinate him. Hinckley’s defense team never denied that he shot the president. Instead, they argued that he was laboring under a severe mental defect and was, in fact, insane.
Hinckley would have the jury believe that he acted involuntarily; essentially his life was controlled by his pathological obsession with the movie “Taxi Driver” and its star Jodie Foster. Hinckley's attorneys said he saw the movie 15 times, and was seeking to reenact the events of the movie in his own life.
Hinckley's attorneys argued that he was schizophrenic and that the movie, and Foster, were the controlling force behind his attempted assassination. The judge allowed the defense to introduce evidence, according to The New York Times, that Hinckley's brain showed signs of shrunken brain tissue, one of the common symptoms of schizophrenia. The jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity.
The jury's decision caused a public outcry. Congress, and a number of states, got to work rewriting the law to make it more difficult for a defendant to win a case using the insanity defense.
Congress adopted a number of provisions that dramatically changed the law. For instance, before Hinckley, the burden of proof in federal cases was on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant was sane. The post-Hinckley reform legislation shifted the burden to the defendant to prove with clear and convincing evidence that he was legally insane at the time of the crime.
Following Congress' lead, more than 30 states made changes to their insanity defense. Over the 1980s and 1990s, many states shifted the burden and standard of proof in ways to make it more difficult to sustain an insanity defense.
In addition to raising more hurdles for a successful insanity defense, many states enacted laws providing for more restrictive confinement options for those acquitted by reason of insanity. Three states — Utah, Montana and Idaho — abolished the defense altogether, according to PBS’s “Frontline.”
The use of the insanity defense is rare. One study, cited by The Times, of eight states published in the 1990s found the insanity defense is used in about 1 percent of all felony cases, with only a quarter of those being successful.
Is it really that shocking that a man who shot the president might someday soon be walking free?
Hinckley already spends more than half of every month a free man. In fact, neither the government nor the judge believes it will be long before Hinckley is free.
Every month, Hinckley spends 17 days away from the hospital at his mother's home in Williamsburg, Virginia. The question for Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman is whether to take the next step and grant him full release from the Hospital.
"Every witness agrees that he's ready and every witness agrees that the risk of danger is decidedly low," Hinckley’s lawyer Barry William Levine recently argued to the court.
According to National Public Radio, Levine said that depression and psychosis fueled Hinckley's drive to shoot President Reagan. He further offered that those conditions are "in full, stable, sustained remission" and have been for more than 20 years.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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