Ill-advised Hinckley decision undermines insanity defense

President Reagan moments before being shot by John Hinckley. Photo (cc) by Thomas Hawk.

President Reagan moments before being shot by John Hinckley. Photo (cc) by Thomas Hawk.

I’m not outraged that a federal judge has decided to release John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. But I don’t think it’s a good idea, either. Hinckley grievously wounded the president; say what you will about Reagan’s seemingly complete recovery, but there was plenty of evidence that he was never the same. Hinckley also injured Reagan’s press secretary, Jim Brady, leading to Brady’s premature death in 2014.

This isn’t a yes-or-not situation; Hinckley already enjoys considerable freedom, and he apparently has not abused it. He’ll still be under some supervision. Still, I don’t think the government should go any further for two reasons:

1. Federal judge Paul Friedman ruled that “the preponderance of the evidence” shows “that Mr. Hinckley will not be a danger to himself or to others.” This strikes me as a value judgment, and that Friedman had the discretion to rule otherwise on the grounds that anyone who did what Hinckley did will always be a danger to others.

2. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. That outraged a lot of people who wanted to see him go to prison. In fact, it was the right thing to do, and it ought to happen more frequently. Unfortunately, granting freedom to someone as notorious as Hinckley will only make it more difficult for defense lawyers to make the already-difficult case that their clients should not be held criminally responsible.

Hinckley should be held in a safe, humane, and secure facility. He should not be freed.

More: Harvey Silverglate writes, “What you did not mention is that the release of Hinckley will embolden supporters of the death penalty.” Indeed it will.

4 thoughts on “Ill-advised Hinckley decision undermines insanity defense

  1. Diana Moses

    Are you saying that a past deed should make a “danger to self or others” determination permanent as a general principle, or is this more about feeling dissatisfied that the deed has been adequately redressed?

  2. John Milne

    The Hinckley family and its lawyers have been in and out of court for years, trying to get Hinckley released or, failing that, a lessening of restrictions on his physical movements. The family is regularly described as wealthy, and it appears to have enough resources to pay for all these legal efforts. I agree that this decision is unwise on the merits, but I fear that the judge has rewarded money and persistence.

  3. Bob Gardner

    Whether a decision “will embolden supporters of the death penalty”, or “make it more difficult for defense lawyers to make the already-difficult case that their clients should not be held criminally responsible” ought to play no role in the judge’s decision whatsoever.
    Those are political, not judicial, considerations..

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