Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Releasing John Hinckley

I felt torn — and still do — when I heard today that John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, is going to be released after being in custody for 35 years.

I'm torn because, on one hand, I believe that anyone who tries to kill a public official should spend the rest of his or her life in prison — until that life is ended by the state or nature. On the other hand, I believe in the jury system and that anyone who is accused of attempting to kill a public official — or any other crime — must be found guilty by a jury of his or her peers.

Everyone who is old enough to remember that day knows that Hinckley fired the gun that wounded Reagan and three others. The new president, only 10 weeks into his administration, had just given a speech, and a swarm of reporters and photographers were waiting for his exit. It may have been the most photographed presidential assassination attempt in history; there was plenty of photographic evidence of Hinckley's crime.

No one died that day — although when Reagan press secretary Jim Brady, who was critically wounded by a shot to the head and permanently disabled, died in 2014, his death was ruled a homicide, the ultimate outcome of the gunshot wound he suffered 33 years earlier.

Anyway, there was no question of Hinckley's guilt, but there was plenty of doubt about his sanity, given the paper trail he left behind.

And that was the question Hinckley's jury had to decide when he went on trial in 1982. Its verdict — not guilty by reason of insanity — was not a popular one. The laws concerning insanity defense were revised in many states; the defense itself was abolished entirely in three states.

But the point now is that Hinckley was not convicted. His verdict was conditional; he would be confined to a mental institution until it was determined that he was not a threat to himself or others. That was an ongoing struggle for about 25 years. From time to time he was given periodic temporary release privileges that were revoked when it was established that he was still obsessed with actress Jodie Foster — for whom he had attempted to kill the president.

It has now been determined that Hinckley poses no threat to himself or others, and he will be released on Aug. 6 — ironically, two days after the second anniversary of Brady's death. He is to live with his 90–year–old mother and have no contact with the Reagan family or Foster.

In case you're wondering, Hinckley could not face new charges in Brady's death because he had already been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the original shooting.

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