Last summer we opened the discussion about the death of James Brady and the finding by the coroner that his death was a homicide, caused by his shooting at the hands of John Hinckley Jr. during an attempt on President Reagan’s life. At the time, the media was discussing whether or not Hinckley could now be brought up on charges and taken to trial yet again for this. I was skeptical.
I’m not saying anything here to take away from the seriousness of Hinkley’s crime, nor the tragic consequences for James Brady. I’m simply asking if there shouldn’t be some sort of expiration date after which a person’s death should be attributed to either a new agent or natural causes rather than pushing back to the original attack. Hinkley was, in my view, clearly guilty of attempted murder (though he got off on the insanity defense) but can he now be declared guilty of murder? Didn’t Brady actually survive the attempt?
The Feds have had plenty of time to wrestle with the question, and yesterday they reached the conclusion I expected to see. Hinckley will not be going back to trial.
In a statement on Friday, the office of the United States attorney for the District of Columbia said that principles of criminal law would keep federal prosecutors from pursuing charges against Mr. Hinckley, now 59, who has been largely confined to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington since he was found not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial in 1982.
“The decision was made following a review of applicable law, the history of the case and the circumstances of Mr. Brady’s death, including recently finalized autopsy findings,” the office said.
Virginia officials, the prosecutors said, found that Mr. Brady’s death was caused by a “gunshot wound of head and consequences thereof.” Among the conditions linked to the wound and the resulting brain injury, officials said, was aspiration pneumonia.
At the time, I had referenced Doug Mataconis and his interpretation of the case law involved. I learned during that coverage of the “Year and a day rule” which has been held at the federal level and in many states to mean that a person must die within a year and a day from the time of the incident in order for it to be considered murder. I don’t know if they took this into account here, but the result is the same as Doug notes yet again.
This isn’t entirely surprising because these are rather well-established principles of law that are designed to ensure some sense of finality to Court decision and court proceedings. After all, it’s entirely probable that someone who was seriously injured in an attempted shooting might eventually die of a condition that could at least tangentially be related to the injuries they suffered in the shooting. While it might seem that holding the suspect responsible for the consequences of their action no matter how long after the event they take to manifest, it’s obvious that there has to be an end point after which charges cannot be brought.
The idea of some sort of expiration date on murder charges still makes sense to me, but both Doug and Eugene Volokh have addressed a second issue here. During the original trial, Hinckley was already charged with the attempted murder of not only Brady, but President Reagan, a Secret Service agent and a cop. On all of these charges he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. (Technically mental disease or defect, actually.) If he were brought up on fresh charges of murder today, the jury would be compelled to take into account not only the fact that he was found not guilty of even trying to murder Brady, but that he had been deemed incapable of being held accountable at the time of the attack.
A new trial would most likely be a waste of everyone’s time and the taxpayer’s dime at this point. And Hinckley will probably die in that hospital, so it’s hard to see what real benefit there would have been in trying in the first place. I’m thinking it’s best to just leave him there to rot, consigned to the dustbin of history.