Sanity and justice

The Hinckley verdict draws sharp attention to proposed federal legislation seeking to protect the public as well as the rights of defendants judged insane. The jury observed present law in acquitting John Hinckley Jr. of the attempted assassination of President Reagan and other charges by reason of insanity. Indeed, it is characteristic of the American judicial process that even the assailant of a president is given the full protection of the laws. Under pending legislation, it appears that Mr. Hinckley would not have been eligible for the insanity defense.

This legislation would exclude those with ''intent'' and awareness of what they were doing, even though diagnosed as mentally ill or embroiled in bizarre circumstances. By this test, according to a legislative example, a defendant would have to be found suffering a delusion such as that he was firing darts at a dart board rather than shooting actual bullets at actual people.

No legislation should be railroaded through in the heat of reaction to a case like the present one. But the public concern ought to spur Congress to the most thoughtful and expeditious scrutiny of the matter.

In addition to revised criteria for the insanity defense, proposals include tightened procedures governing the detention or release of defendants committed to mental institutions after insanity verdicts. Certainly the restoration of sanity and elimination of aberrant behavior must always be looked forward to and welcomed when achieved.There should be no return to the earlier years of the insanity defense when it was often a means of indefinitely ''warehousing'' offenders whom society was reluctant to execute. Nor should ''insanity'' be an excuse for putting away persons where evidence might not support a finding of actual criminal guilt. But the public needs every assurance of safeguards against dangerous individuals being returned to their midst.

Mr. Hinckley is not the first presidential assailant judged insane. So were the man who pulled the trigger on a jammed gun against President Jackson in 1835 and the man who shot President Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Both of them spent the rest of their lives in mental institutions.

There is perhaps a sense in which anyone who reaches the point of trying to take life, whether of a president or someone else, is not fully in possession of his faculties. No one in his right mind, to use the familiar phrase, would do such a thing. This is why the new focus on the insanity defense can be valuable - to see whether and how it should best be narrowed or redefined to bolster that security of society which depends on protecting the rights of both the individual and the whole.

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