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John Hinckley: Mentally Stable?

December 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: It’s been 22 years since John Hinckley fired shots outside the Washington Hilton Hotel injuring then-President Ronald Reagan, press secretary James Brady and two law enforcement officers. Hinckley was acquitted by reason of insanity of attempting to assassinate the president, and sent to live here — St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Washington.

During more than two decades in the hospital, Hinckley has been allowed to leave about 200 times to see movies, go shopping, even go to the beach, always under the close supervision of hospital staff. Hinckley has petitioned the court on numerous occasions to be allowed more freedom.

Yesterday, a U.S. district judge agreed, and also said Hinckley was entitled to be released under case law. But the judge issued some strict conditions.

Hinckley will be allowed six unsupervised visits of up to 12 hours each, he must stay within 50 miles of Washington, D.C., his parents have to be with him at all times, he has to check in with the hospital once a day, and Hinckley and his parents are banned from having any contact with the media.

If the visits go well, Hinckley may be permitted overnight visits later. The Reagan and the Brady families both denounced the judge’s decision. In a statement, the former First Lady said: “My family and I are very disappointed. … We continue to fear for the safety of the general public.” Her son Ron said this:

RON REAGAN: Maybe if John Hinckley is not insane anymore, he needs to just go to prison, and there he can reflect for a while on what he did.

RAY SUAREZ: But a doctor who had examined Hinckley said he is no longer dangerous.

DR. E. FULLER TORREY: If they ask me personally should John Hinckley be released, my answer is absolutely, as long it’s guaranteed he’s on medication.

RAY SUAREZ: Hinckley does still take anti-psychotic drugs and will continue to live at St. Elizabeth’s indefinitely.

Now two views on the decision. Joseph DiGenova supervised the prosecution of Hinckley when he was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. He is now in private practice. And Stephen Morse is a professor of law specializing in criminal and mental health at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Well Joseph DiGenova, when someone is found not to be responsible because they are criminally insane at the time the act is committed, is there a point at which it’s structured properly they can start to reenter society?

JOSEPH DI GENOVA: There may be and the question is, is that the case with John Hinckley. And I think the case raises a series of very interesting questions. Let me say at the outset that Judge Friedman who ruled in this case is a very fine federal judge.

When you read his opinion, you are struck by the quality of his Herculean effort to not reach the conclusion he ultimately reaches, which is that the preponderance of the evidence is that Mr. Hinckley should be granted this conditional release under the very structured and strict conditions that’s the judge requires.

What happened here is, is that the judge was required by the law, the statute in the District of Columbia which controls the release of these types of individuals who are acquitted by reason the insanity, and by the United States Court of Appeals, which had ruled previously that Mr. Hinckley was entitled to certain other forms of conditional release.

My problem is not with the judge’s ruling. My problem is with the statute. I believe that the statute fails to take into account a very important public policy, and that is, that when a person seeks to nullify a national election with a bullet, when he seeks to decapitate a democracy by ending a presidency. That fact is so important in a society like ours, that special conditions must attach to any conditional release of a would be assassin and therefore, while I believe the judge did the right thing yesterday, because that is what the law required, I believe the law in this case was an ass and that Congress should amend the statute and prohibit this type of conditional release for someone in Mr. Hinckley’s category of would be assassins.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Morse what do you think of the brief you just heard?

STEPHEN MORSE: Well, I think that these laws are very good laws and not necessarily being misapplied in the case. The jury decided in 1982 John Hinckley was crazy when he tried to kill President Reagan that he didn’t try to as Mr. DiGenova said try and decapitate the government or anything of the sort.

He had, if we believe his story, a delusional system and that’s what the jury found. The man wasn’t responsible for himself and he may not be punished. The only question is as I think as Mrs. Reagan properly said today whether he presents a continuing danger.

Now, to the extent his dangerousness was in part produced by his mental disorder if that mental disorder is now under control and he has been treated for 20 years and he is willing to take his medication and seemingly is willing to agree to the conditions of release, then I think that we have no right to do anything punitive to him. We only have a right to protect the public and if the best clinical and scientific evidence is he does not present a danger under these conditions of conditional release, then I think it makes sense in terms of justice and fairness to let him go.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you encouraged professor by the fact that there have already been 200 supervised trips?

STEPHEN MORSE: Well, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. To the extent that Hinckley has in the past shown himself amenable to good behavior while under supervised release, then there is some argument for taking a bit of a greater risk in giving him more unsupervised release.

RAY SUAREZ: Joseph DiGenova?

JOSEPH DI GENOVA: I don’t necessarily disagree with the professor. I’m actually making a different point. I concede that the statute required the judge to do what he did. I don’t disagree with the judge’s rulings based on the law, although I must say that Judge Friedman did go out of his way to note the incredible deception in which Mr. Hinckley has engaged over the years and his deep concern about it even to this day.

And I have to note, also, that the practicalities of this are that now at least 20 secret service agents will be diverted from otherwise protecting the president to watch Mr. Hinckley during these visits. And may I say, the one thing I do disagree with the judge is — and I have great respect for him, I know him — if I were going to experiment with releasing Mr. Hinckley, I wouldn’t do it in the community where the president lives. I would do just the opposite of what the judge did. I would release him into Williamsburg or San Francisco or Los Angeles, where the president does not abide, where Mr. and Mrs. Brady don’t abide and allow this experiment to be conducted where he’s least likely to harm the people that were the victims in the previous incident.

In addition, Mr. Hinckley is self-medicating that means he and he alone determines whether or not he takes his psychotropic medication. I come down on the side of the law needs to be changed.

The law could be changed tomorrow by Congress by passing legislation to simply say that this type of conditional release is not available to a would be assassin of a president of the United States and that would be perfectly constitutional because these are laws which are designed to protect the public.

Congress could make the public policy decision this type of unsupervised travel into the community where the president of the United States lives is not in the public interest. And I would like to see Congress do that upon their return. But, again, I don’t necessarily disagree with Professor Morse.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor is it possible to carve out such an exception in the law because of the status of the intended victim not the status of the accused?

STEPHEN MORSE: I agree with Mr. DiGenova that we could in fact carve out that exception but don’t think it’d be a wise thing to do. It seems to me Mr. DiGenova is saying the evidence in the Hinckley case isn’t as clear as Judge Friedman thought it was.

There was a history of deception, maybe greater danger than the judge thought there was. If that was the case perhaps the decision went the wrong way. But if the evidence were in fact he doesn’t look as dangerous as previously looked and this form of release doesn’t present as great a danger I see no reason to distinguish Mr. Hinckley who tried to kill the president for crazy reasons than someone else who may have also created great danger for equally crazy reasons.

I see no reason to carve out an exception. I think the real question is whether the facts justify this form release and as Mr. DiGenova has suggested, Judge Friedman seems justified by the facts and the law.

RAY SUAREZ: In his opinion, Joseph DiGenova, the judge mentioned if John Hinckley were to skip his medication there is would be no change in his words, no change for weeks by which time he would be back at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital, but I’m interested in your proposition that because of the enormity of the crime even a person judged not guilty by reason of insanity should have no hope his treatment or her treatment might have an eventual result which would lead to a different kind of observation, supervision.

JOSEPH DI GENOVA: Let me just say I think we must … my point is relatively simple: It is that we are a democratic society. We are a republican form of government. We use elections to run ourselves.

When someone seeks to nullify that process … and I know the professor disagrees with this characterization but I believe it is correct … when you seek to decapitate a democracy by killing its leader, that is such an act, such a different, proportionally different act against the state and the people that it requires a public policy decision about what kind of future an assassin should have.

My view is, I don’t want John Hinckley not to be able to eat meals, watch movies, have perhaps even a wife or children. But I want him to be confined. I want him to be controlled by the state for the rest of his life, because what he did and thank God did not accomplish, what he tried to do is such a derogation of what a democracy is, it is my belief a would be assassin of a president forfeits any right to walk in society ever again in the future.

Even if they are acquitted by reason of insanity and the reason is, is that because we run ourselves by these voluntary decisions in a democracy of voting, we cannot allow that act, we cannot allow that act to be possible again, because psychiatry is an art. It is not a science, and, therefore, relying on predictions by psychiatrists that someone will not be dangerous is a massive riverboat gamble.

RAY SUAREZ: A gamble professor, can you reduce the risks through the way the release is structured?

STEPHEN MORSE: You can reduce them but you can’t reduce them to nothing. Mr. DiGenova is absolutely right, psychiatry especially when predicting future behavior isn’t an exact science. On the other hand, it seems to me that’s an argument once again that applies to all people who may have done terrible, terrible crimes but acquitted by reason of insanity.

I think Mr. DiGenova’s argument would have more force if Mr. Hinckley’s reasons for trying to kill the president suggested it was an attack on the United States but if the jury believed Mr. Hinckley’s story as they did the reason for killing the president had nothing to do with attacking the United States; it had to do with his own private world and his fantasy life having to do with Jodie Foster. All lives are equal in the United States.

There was no attack on the government in this case. There was an attack on an individual who happened to be the president. That was a terrible thing to do. But this man was crazy. Other people may be equally crazy who tried to kill other people.

The only question ought to be can we with reasonable certainty try forms of limited release and in this particular case after 20 years of treatment with a good history of medication adherence I think there is a very sound case for the release. The only question as Mrs. Reagan said is whether the public is in danger and our best guess clinically today is it won’t be.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Mr. DiGenova good to talk to you both.