Does The Public Believe The “Criminally Insane” Can Recover And Deserve Mercy?

(10-4-21) Does the public believe a defendant judged by a court to be criminally insane can ever recover?

A federal judge recently ruled that John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan four decades ago, can be freed from all remaining restrictions next June if he continues to follow the court’s rules and remains mentally stable.

I clearly remember March 30, 1981 when Hinckley wounded Reagan, police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy. He also critically wounded Press Secretary James Brady, who was permanently disabled in the shooting and died from his injuries 33 years later. I was a young reporter at The Washington Post and assigned to write a story about the .22 caliber handgun and ammunition that Hinckley used.

Public furor over his Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity prompted calls to rewrite the standards used for such pleas, and news that Hinckley now will be released after forty years, ignited another fierce debate.

Judge Paul L. Friedman said Hinckley, now 66, has displayed no symptoms of active mental illness, no violent behavior and no interest in weapons since 1983.

“If he hadn’t tried to kill the president, he would have been unconditionally released a long, long, long time ago,” the judge said. “But everybody is comfortable now after all of the studies, all of the analysis and all of the interviews and all of the experience with Mr. Hinckley.”

One individual who is not “comfortable,” is President Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, who wrote an OP in The Washington Post opposing Hinckley’s freedom. She strongly criticizing Hinckley’s attorney, Barry Levine, who she wrote: “worked the system from the beginning and, finding a judge who was sympathetic to them, made this day inevitable.”

Calling Hinckley, a diagnosed narcissist, Davis wrote:

“(Attorney) Levine has been relentless on Hinckley’s behalf; he wasn’t going to stop until he secured complete freedom for his client. People’s memories have faded. That burst of gunfire outside the Washington Hilton was a long time ago. I have friends who weren’t even born then. But for me, for my family, for (actress Jodie) Foster, the memory of that day will never fade. In my mind’s eye, I will always picture Hinckley’s cold eyes as he blew open White House press secretary Jim Brady’s head, as he wounded Secret Service Special Agent Tim McCarthy and Metropolitan Police Department Officer Thomas Delahanty. I will always picture my father being shoved into the limousine after a shot struck his lung and nearly grazed his heart.”

She added that she now feared Hinckley might come after her.

     (He may ) “contact me, my siblings and the actress Jodie Foster, whom, as is well known, he was trying to impress by carrying out his ambush. “

The spread of mental health dockets across the country – at the urging of the U.S. Justice Department – shows that judges are much more aware today than in the past about how individuals in the midst of a mental break can get caught up in the criminal justice system when their only real crime is that they became ill.

But that acceptance and urge to treat rather than punish ends whenever mass murder is involved.

James Holmes entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, at his trial for the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting, in which he killed 12 people and injured 70 others inside a Century 16 movie theater.  Jurors found him guilty after deciding his mental illness did not outweigh aggravating factors such as the number of casualties in the massacre. However, they spared his life. He was sentenced to 12 consecutive life sentences plus 3,318 years without parole.

Attorneys for Jared Lee Loughner decided not to enter a Not Guilty By Insanity Plea even though their client was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. To avoid a death sentence, Loughner pleaded guilty to 19 charges of murder and attempted murder in connection with a January 8, 2011 Tucson shooting, in which he shot and severely injured U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, and killed six people, including Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman, one of Giffords’ staff, and a 9-year-old girl, Christina-Taylor Green. In all, he shot and injured a total of 13 people, including one man who was injured while subduing him.

What made Loughner’s case especially interesting to me was that he was judged not mentally competent to be put on trial so the government responded by forcing him to take medication so he could be made competent enough to sign a guilty plea. He was sentenced to life plus 140 years in federal prison.

With the exception of a small percentage of severely mentally ill Americans who go untreated, most individuals with mental illnesses are not dangerous and are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. I believe the public understands that – to a point.

Will Judge Friedman’s ruling about Hinckley lead to others charged in sensational murders being treated and released?

I suspect that Holmes’ mother, Arlene, hopes so. She has never defended what her son did, but in a foreword to her book,  When the Focus Shifts: The Prayer Book of Arlene Holmes 2013-2014, she wrote, “Severely mentally ill people need treatment, not execution.” (Her book describes what she experienced as a parent after her son was arrested. She donated proceeds of the book to mental health services.)

Isn’t that part of a larger question that needs to be addressed? How many lives could be saved if we helped Americans deal with the symptoms of their mental illnesses before they pick up a gun?

(I do not accept comments on this page but do on my Facebook account and welcome your reactions.) 

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.