Saturday, August 9, 2014

No, John Hinckley Jr. must not be charged with murder

Is the coroner who declared James Brady's death a homicide trying to make a political point? Was s/he subjected to pressure from any prosecutors or police? Or is this coroner just a stickler who says that because the health issues that led to Brady's death can be directly traced back to a gun shot wound he suffered 33 years ago, the death was the result of another human's actions and was thus a homicide?

I really don't know what the medical examiner's office was thinking when it labeled this death a homicide. But what I do know is that trying now to prosecute John Hinckley Jr. for murder would be a stupid, pointless waste of time and resources. It shouldn't even be considered.

I've seen it happen too often that prosecutors file charges without doing research about whether there are bars to those charges only to realize weeks or months later that the charges aren't prosecutable. No one benefits from this kind of react first, research later prosecution. It's not fair to a rape victim whose attacker has finally been identified after decades to let her think the man will be prosecuted because you didn't bother to research the statute of limitations first. Or to tell a grieving parent her son's death will be treated as a murder when the murder laws of your state don't allow that.

In articles I've seen today about this homicide finding, I've seen some rumblings that the case is being "investigated," that prosecutors are "reviewing the ruling." I hope they will actually carefully review the law and think about the case before filing anything because there should not, cannot, be a new trial.

30 years ago, a jury found John Hinckley Jr. was not guilty of charges related to the shooting by reason of insanity. That legal finding ought to be binding on the state. You can't undo that jury finding, can't ignore it, can't say it doesn't matter now. It does. It's law of the case. Eugene Volokh agrees with me on this, and also explains some other legal bars to prosecuting Hinckley now.

So for legal reasons, no one should seriously think trying to prosecute Hinckley for murder now is a worthwhile idea. And prosecutors should think through all of these legal obstacles before they file any charges, not after.

But there's a non-legal reason for letting this go, too, even if he could be prosecuted. John Hinckley was insane when he decided shooting President Reagan was just the thing to impress a woman he didn't know. A jury had no trouble making that finding. As a result, Hinckley has lived in mental health facilities since. Yes, he's now allowed passes so he can spend time at his mother's house, around 2 weeks a month. But he's been supervised and treated for decades. For over 30 years, he has been prevented from hurting anyone again.

Preventing him from hurting anyone is precisely what the criminal justice system's goal for this case was. We have already achieved all we could hope to achieve with Hinckley. He is still within a court's jurisdiction. He is still required to accept supervision and treatment for his mental illness. If his mental health deteriorates, there are already procedures in place to restrict the freedoms he has earned. Nothing more would be gained by trying now to put him in prison (where, by the way, it's almost guaranteed his mental illness would not be nearly as well treated).

The Hinckley case was a watershed moment in the criminal justice system. The outrage that a man who was insane at the time of his crime was found to be insane at the time of his crime was enormous (even if utterly unjustified). There was a false but very strong sense that he "got away with it" by being housed all these years in a mental institution instead of a prison. As a direct result of this case, states across the country altered their laws on mental illness as a defense to crimes. These new laws made it much harder for defendants to rely on mental illness as a defense at trial. The intent of these changes was to make sure the Hinckleys of the world would go to prison, not some "cushy" mental hospital because there was somehow something unjust about treating a person with profound mental illness as a person with profound mental illness.

Trying to prosecute him now would demonstrate that we've learned nothing about how wrong those knee-jerk reactions to his original verdict were. Our prisons are overrun with mentally ill inmates because we've criminalized mental illness. People like John Hinckley Jr. should be in mental hospitals, not prisons. As a society, we're better off when we treat mental illness and show compassion to those who suffer from it instead of throwing them away in prison as people too damaged to bother with.

The justice system's treatment of John Hinckley Jr. has been exactly what it should have been. There is nothing to correct, no reason to pursue new responses to his 33 year-old crimes. There is no reason to reopen that case. Here's hoping the powers that be know that.

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