Would-be Presidential Assassin John W. Hinckley Seeks More Freedom– Again

–Richard E. Vatz

About two weeks ago there was ample coverage bespeaking what a one-time bud of mine, the excellent journalist Bill Salganik, at The Baltimore Sun used to call “anniversary journalism:” the publicizing of significant events that that had no new salience, but just happened to have occurred on dates 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 years (more so those ending in “0”) earlier.

The event of a fortnight ago was the coverage of the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt against President Reagan and the other very permanently consequential shootings by John Hinckley. Much of the coverage, including a special piece by USA Today newspaper, overly credited subsequent changes in insanity pleas in the United States with lessened abuse of the plea. It also underestimated the brazen efforts to provide freedom to Mr. Hinckley.

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Hinckley’s initial successful plea of insanity was due in large part to the Washington D.C. federal court’s granting a presumption of truth at the time to the defense, if the judge allowed it to be raised. There has been indeed a salutary change in that the presumption to be overcome now in those courts is that the defendant is sane.

As for Mr. Hinckley’s latest bag of tricks per his family, “doctors” and lawyers, as described by The Washington Post, “Lawyers and doctors for John W. Hinckley Jr. asked a federal judge Tuesday to grant the presidential assailant additional unsupervised visits to his mother’s home in Virginia. Hinckley, 55, has been held at St. Elizabeths Hospital since being found not guilty by reason of insanity for shooting President Ronald Reagan, White House press secretary James Brady, D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy outside a Washington hotel in 1981.” However, according to the Associated Press, again from the Post, “…in a court filing Monday [April 11], lawyers for the government said Hinckley offered no basis to grant him an unspecified number of new visits beyond the 12 he was granted in 2009 and has now used up.

Hinckley’s years in St. Elizabeths Hospital have been marked by consistent efforts to secure his freedom, despite continuing evidence over the years of his dangerousness, often hidden by his sympathizers. His is just a highly publicized example of the use of the insanity plea to exculpate horrible felons whose malefactions have a permanently debilitating consequence for their victims and society. Ask Jim Brady how sorry he feels for John Hinckley. Ask Nancy Reagan.

Most of the invalidities of the insanity plea (also called by different names, including a related “not criminally responsible” plea in some states) remain. There is no evidence that there has been an abatement of psychiatric intrusions into the sentencing phase or other components of the criminal justice system. The lessening or eliminating of criminal punishment is the consistent goal of these mental health rhetorical guns-for-hire.

Psychiatrists, forensic and otherwise, have throughout Hinckley’s stay at St. Elizabeths Hospital consistently argued for ameliorating his punishment, despite consistent evidence of his dangerousness and lack of contrition. When a psychiatrist testified some time ago that Mr. Hinckley was quite able to hide his aggressive tendencies, this was ignored.

Vicious killers and would-be killers have a reliable friend in forensic psychiatry. Such “experts” on insanity (not a psychiatric term) are always eager to provide testimony on the accused’s behalf.

There is no compelling argument supporting further freedom for Hinckley, but there was no compelling reason for allowing him increased unsupervised (!) visits previously.

It is sad that with the insanity plea life-long vigilance is required to protect the safety of the public as well as the quality of life of victims and their relatives.

Professor Vatz is author of over one hundred articles and reviews on the rhetoric of mental illness and is Associate Psychology Editor of USA Today Magazine and an editor of Current Psychology

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