Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Hinckley Case, Still Unfolding

On March 30, 1981, a disturbed man named John Hinckley Jr. shot and wounded President Ronald Reagan, as well as Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady. Thirty years later, the case continues to influence debate about the insanity defense and gun control.

President Reagan survived the assassination attempt, and eventually recovered from the stomach wound he received.

James Brady was paralyzed after being shot in the head. He and his wife Sarah became passionate advocates for gun control. With remarkable perseverance, they are still at it, three decades later.

A Secret Service agent and a District of Columbia police officer were also wounded by Hinckley’s attack.

Today, at age 70, Mr. Brady appeared at a news conference on Capitol Hill. From his wheelchair, with Sarah beside him, he called once again for more effective gun control legislation. The Bradys also met with President Obama at the White House, seeking to enlist his support.

Hinckley was found to be mentally ill and remains in a mental facility in Washington. Now 55, he is permitted by the court to take fairly frequent furloughs from the mental facility to visit his mother in Williamsburg, Va. In the last year and a half, he has been granted a dozen furloughs, during which is monitored via a GPS-equipped cell phone.

Even more controversial than the furloughs was the verdict at Hinckley’s trial in 1982. The jury found him not-guilty by reason of insanity. This led to a furious debate in legal circles and the public at large about the legitimacy (or not) of the insanity defense.

In my first-year criminal law class at Valparaiso University School of Law, Prof.Bruce Berner used the case as an example of how seriously juries tend to take their work. In the abstract, it may be easy to dismiss the insanity defense as hokum. It’s quite another, however, to be there in the jury box, with someone’s life in your hands.

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