Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / December 23, 1997 / 24 Kislev, 5758
Home for the Holidays
...where John Hinckley, never convicted, will not be
WASHINGTON -- John Hinckley would like to go home for the holidays, and you can't blame him for that. In fact, you can't blame him for anything. That's the problem.
Even though Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan and three other people on March 30, 1981, the law says he cannot be blamed for that. A jury said he was not guilty by reason of insanity.
And most people can support that concept -- as long as it is in the abstract: If you are not responsible for your actions through a mental disease or defect, then surely you should not be punished for them.
In our society, we cure sick people. We treat them therapeutically, not punitively.
Unless they shoot the President of the United States, that is.
Though John Hinckley is technically not a criminal, he certainly is treated like one. Hinckley has been committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., since he was judged insane in 1982.
He is in St. Elizabeths for one purpose only: to be cured. When he is cured and, therefore, no longer a danger, he must be released. The law says so.
People who shoot other people and get convicted for it rarely serve 15 years in prison. (People who murder other people serve, on average, only around eight years in prison.) But Hinckley can be kept in St. Elizabeths forever.
And it looks like that might be the plan. You don't attack a President of the United States and get away with it. No matter if you're crazy or not.
Except on one occasion, Hinckley has not been allowed outside St. Elizabeths in 15 years, even though his doctors say he would be helped by such outside visits.
Hinckley is so well known, there is public outcry any time it looks as if he might be getting a break. His acquittal so enraged people that afterward Congress and various states changed their laws so using an insanity defense would be much more difficult.
And today, insanity is an extremely rare defense, used in only about 1 percent of all felony murder cases. It is successful only about 25 percent of the time.
It did not work for John Wayne Gacy, who strangled 33 young men and boys and buried 26 of them beneath the floorboards of his home in suburban Chicago. And it did not work for Jeffrey Dahmer, who dismembered and partially ate 15 young men and boys in Milwaukee.
Could anyone who performed these gruesome deeds really be sane? Their juries thought so, or at least the juries did not want to run the risk of ever putting either man back out on the streets (which is why most insanity defenses fail).
When Hinckley was successful with his insanity plea, it might have seemed like a good deal to him at the time, but I doubt he feels that way today.
In December 1986, Hinckley's doctors felt he was well enough to exit the hospital on a 12-hour supervised leave. The hospital did not seek the permission of the federal court that tried Hinckley, nor was it required to.
The Secret Service was notified a week in advance of Hinckley's leave, and the service went, you should pardon the expression, nuts.
The service protested the planned leave, saying Hinckley was still dangerous (and Reagan was still president, living in the same town as Hinckley). But the hospital gave Hinckley a leave anyway, and he spent the day with his family at a religious facility a few miles from Washington. (Reagan was in California at the time.)
But there was a huge public outcry over Hinckley's leave -- even though it was uneventful -- and now the hospital always asks the court if it is OK to let Hinckley out. And the court always says no.
About 10 days ago, the doctors at St. Elizabeths recommended that Hinckley be allowed to spend six hours away from the hospital under supervision to celebrate the holidays with his parents and girlfriend.
The chairman of the hospital's review board said the visit "would appear to be the next step in (Hinckley's) treatment."
The U.S. Attorney's office, as always, opposed the plan and said the judge should pay no attention to the doctors' advice.
"Given the fallibility of psychiatric opinion and the independent role of the court, the court is not bound by psychiatric opinion ... " the prosecutors said.
The judge agreed and turned down the request for Hinckley to leave the hospital.
So even though Hinckley is a patient who is locked up only for the purposes of treatment, the court feels no need to listen to his doctors.
In the eyes of the law, John Hinckley is an innocent man. But that doesn't mean he is ever going to be a free man. We're not supposed to have political prisoners in America, but John Hinckley comes about as close as you can get.