The Insanity Defense

John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan in the chest in 1981.  The shot was almost fatal.  Hinckley also shot presidential press secretary James Brady in the head, permanently disabling Brady.  Police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy were wounded as well.  When Brady died in 2014, the medical examiner pronounced the death to be a homicide – a result of the head wound inflicted by Hinckley thirty three years before.   Hinckley shot the president and James Brady in order to impress actress Jodie Foster.  He was stalking Foster and not having much success in arrange a real encounter.  He thought that assassinating the president would do the trick.  Obviously, John Hinckley was mentally ill.

Now, three and a half decades later, doctors have found that John Hinckley is sufficiently restored to mental health that he can be released back into society.  He is no longer a danger, the psychiatrists say.  He won’t try to assassinate any more presidents and he will not hurt anyone else.  Hinckley may have been found not guilty as a result of insanity but that insanity was not permanent.  It was insanity of the passing type, temporary insanity.  

Hinckley is not the first to “get away with murder” because of a mental disorder.   In San Francisco in 1978, former police office and former city supervisor Dan White coldly shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.  White’s famous diminished mental capacity defense resulted in a conviction for voluntary manslaughter rather than murder and White was released after just five years in prison.   Five years for two cold blooded assassinations!

John Hinckley’s defense of temporary insanity has its roots in politics too.  Congressman Dan Sickles was an aspirant to the presidency when he shot and killed Philip Barton Key, the district attorney of Washington DC and the son of Francis Scott Key, the author of our national anthem.  Key had been taking liberties with Sickles’ beautiful young wife Teresa and that just drove Sickles out of his mind.   Sickles was defended at his trial by Edwin Stanton, also an aspirant for the presidency and later Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War.  It was the trial of the century and Dan Sickles walked out a free man.   He was insane when he shot down young Mr. Key.  He was out of his mind with jealously and rage.  It seemed that shooting Mr. Key in the head had a salutary effect on Sickles’ mental health because the jury found that the insanity that excused Sickles from shooting and killing an unarmed man immediately disappeared once the killing was done.  Sickles felt a lot better when his wife’s lover was dead at his feet.  Dan Sickles went on to be a major general in the Union Army and lost a leg at Gettysburg.   

John Hinckley’s insanity, like that of Dan Sickles, has been determined to be impermanent.  Hinckley has been restored to his freedom because psychiatrists found that the insanity that drove him to shoot the president and James Brady and two others was not permanent.  It was temporary and Hinckley is better now.  You may be forgiven for wondering if some others besides Hinckley might be a little bit out of their minds.

Content prepared by Edmond McGill. © Edmond McGill, 2016


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