Swift justice and the Hinckley case

Questions are being raised about the image and operation of justice in America as the months drag on without the accused would-be assassin of President Reagan being brought to trial. The delay needs to be placed in the perspective of a special case. But the long lag in itself is a reminder for Americans not to let up on the general drive for swifter court action. This has been repeatedly called for in recent years as a means of controlling crime and meeting the constitutional demand for speedy trial.

In Italy the accused would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II was brought to trial within barely more than two months. In Egypt the accused assassins of President Sadat have been brought to trial in less than two months. In the United States John Hinckley has not yet been brought to trial more than eight months after he allegedly tried to kill the President.

Part of the perspective on these disparities is that in both Italy and Egypt the cases were assigned to a tribunal of judges rather than a jury. It can be argued that a delay in the Hinckley trial before a jury provides a cooling-off period. Immediately after such a massively publicized event detached jurors would have been hard to find. By this reasoning, the delay offers a distance of time as an alternative to distance of space - as when a local trial is moved from a center of controversy to more neutral ground.

But another side of the coin is also seen. Do the long months of incarceration cause unnecessary suffering, with prolonged suspense about the outcome leading to a kind of double jeopardy? Would Mr. Hinckley's apparent attempted suicides have been avoided had he been swiftly brought to trial?

As for the public, an earlier trial could serve the purpose of placing on the record the whole story. Then the shocking episode could be closed and full public attention restored to more constructive matters.

It should be remembered that, especially in civil cases, what seem like inordinate delays are sometimes a productive part of the justice process. They can permit useful negotiation and change of attitude. In criminal cases, delay is often caused by sheer workload.

Workload could hardly be a problem in such a high-priority federal case as an attempted presidential assassination. Delay has been caused by psychological testing of Mr. Hinckley and controversies over evidence resulting in judicial findings that violations of his rights had occurred.

Now his attorneys say that he is competent to stand trial, and a January date has been set for the trial to begin.

The task is to move forward on the demanding line of sufficient time to ensure the rights of the accused and reach a proper verdict without prolonging private agony or public spectacle.

The call to American justice as a whole is to eliminate unnecessary delays for the sake of effective enforcement and careful observance of the law.

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