On Monday, more than 33 years after he was shot during the attempted assassination of President Reagan on March 30, 1981, former White House Press Secretary James Brady passed away. Yesterday, a Virginia medical examiner classified Brady’s death as a homicide, setting up the possibility that John Hinckley Jr, currently still hospitalized at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, could be charged with his murder.
WASHINGTON — The death this week of James S. Brady, the former White House press secretary, had been ruled a homicide 33 years after he was wounded in an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, police department officials here said Friday.
Officials said the ruling was made by the medical examiner in Northern Virginia, where Mr. Brady died Monday at 73. The medical examiner’s office would not comment on the cause and manner of Mr. Brady’s death.
“We did do an autopsy on Mr. Brady, and that autopsy is complete,” a spokeswoman said.
Gail Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Brady family, said the ruling should really “be no surprise to anybody.”
“Jim had been long suffering severe health consequences since the shooting,” she said, adding that the family had not received official word of the ruling from either the medical examiner’s office or the police.
The ruling could allow prosecutors in Washington, where Reagan and Mr. Brady were shot on March 30, 1981, by John W. Hinckley Jr., to reopen the case and charge Mr. Hinckley with murder. The United States attorney’s office said Friday that it was “reviewing the ruling on the death of Mr. Brady” and had no further comment.
Mr. Hinckley was found not guilty in 1982 by reason of insanity on charges ranging from attempted assassination of the president to possession of an unlicensed pistol. The verdict was met with such outrage that many states and the federal government altered laws to make it harder to use the insanity defense. Mr. Hinckley, now 59, has been a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington since the trial.
There is no statute of limitations on murder charges, but any attempt to retry Mr. Hinckley would be a challenge for prosecutors, in part because he was ruled insane, said Hugh Keefe, a Connecticut defense lawyer who taught trial advocacy at Yale University.
“They’re dead in the water,” Mr. Keefe said. “That’s the end of that case, because we have double jeopardy. He was tried; he was found not guilty based on insanity.”
But George J. Terwilliger III, who was the assistant United States attorney in Washington when he wrote the search warrant for Mr. Hinckley’s hotel room, said there might be grounds for a new trial.
“Generally, a new homicide charge would be adjudicated on its merits without reference to a prior case,” said Mr. Terwilliger, who became a deputy attorney general under the elder President George Bush and is now in private practice. “The real challenge here would be to prove causation for the death.”
Mr. Hinckley’s lawyer, Barry W. Levine, acknowledged new charges were possible, but said the possibility was “far-fetched in the extreme.”
“There’s nothing new here that happened,” he said.
Off the top, it’s worth noting here that the fact that Brady’s death has been ruled a homicide does not necessarily mean that criminal charges will be brought in his death. As a general rule, when any person dies, the cause of their death must be noted on the official records that result in the creation of a Death Certificate and, in the end, there are only a limited number of causes of death. That cause of death could be natural causes, such as disease, accident, suicide, or homicide, which is broadly defined as “the killing of a human being due to the act or omission of another.” There are many forms of homicide, some of which aren’t necessarily crimes, such as justifiable crimes. In any case, though, in the case of Brady’s death if there is medical evidence that his ultimate cause of death can ultimately tied to the injuries he suffered as a result of the shooting on March 30, 1981, then it was entirely proper for his death to be classified as a homicide. Ultimately, it is as much a statistical classification as anything else, but of course that classification could have legal implications depending on how prosecutors in the District of Columbia choose to act.
Labeling Brady’s death a homicide, of course, has implications far beyond the question of how his death in 2014 will be classified in the statistical records. The question now is whether John Hinckley, Jr, who has been hospitalized at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in the District for three decades since he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, could be charged with his murder 33 years after the act that is allegedly the cause of Brady’s death. Given the fact that there is no statute of limitations for murder, the fact that three decades has passed is not a bar to bringing charges itself. However, there are several reasons why any murder charges against Hinckley at this point in time would be legally tenuous and, ultimately, could end up with the same result as that his acquittal three decades ago.
The original 13 count indictment against Hinckley in Federal Court, for example, included attempted murder charges under both federal and District of Columbia law for the shootings of President Reagan, Metropolitan Police Department Officer Thomas Delahanty, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and Brady.(See this article from the Toledo Blade from August 25, 1981, and this Christian Science Monitor article from the same day.) He was acquitted on all of these charges based on the psychiatric evidence that was presented in court. While double jeopardy would not, in theory, bar bringing murder charges even though Hinckley was acquitted of the attempted murder of the same person since these are different offenses, one would imagine that Hinckley’s defense would clearly raise this argument before trial.
More importantly, though, even if the prosecution were able to get beyond the double jeopardy issue, it is hard to see how they’d be able to avoid the same outcome that they ended up with 32 years ago. While the law has changed significantly since the Hinckley verdict regarding what a defendant must prove in order to establish legal insanity at trial, it seems clear that the law that would apply in a trial today for the murder of James Brady would be the law as it existed in 1982 when Hinckley was on trial. Whether Hinckley was tried before a jury or by a judge, that trier of fact would be required to apply the law as it existed back then, which was much more favorable to defendants than it is today. Additionally, the evidence that the trier of fact would be required to consider in this regard would be regarding Hinckley’s mental state at the time of the shootings, not his mental state today, which is apparently vastly improved according to recent evaluations by the doctors treating him. If Hinckley was not guilty by reason of insanity based on that law and that evidence 32 years ago, then it strikes me that there’s no reason to think that he shouldn’t be found not guilty by reason of insanity today, if he were to be charged with Brady’s murder.
In addition to the mental health issues, prosecutors could also be faced with y problems in trying to link the March 1981 shooting with Brady’s death some 401 months later. The Medical Examiner’s determination that Brady’s death is a homicide does not end the legal question of just how one can tie the events of March 1981 to Brady’s death. Typically, one only sees murder charges filed at a late date like this in cases where someone had been in a coma for a long period of time after being assaulted and then died as a result of their injuries. That didn’t happen in Brady’s case. He was shot some three decades ago, and while he did have to deal with those injuries for the next three decades, it may be a long shot to try to hold Hinckley legally responsible for his death on Monday.
Ultimately, the question of whether or not murder charges are brought will be in the hands of the US attorney in Washington, and the District’s attorney general. As things stand right now, though, it seems as though such charges would be on legally tenuous grounds.
Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.