Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The John Hinckley Trial & Its Effect on the Insanity Defense

John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate American President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. He failed but in his subsequent trial and acquittal by reason of insanity, he dealt a serious blow to the insanity defense in the United States. Or so postulates Kimberly Collins, Gabe Hinkebein, and Staci Schorgl in The John Hinckley Trial & Its Effect on the Insanity Defense.

The American public was outraged with the verdict. The legal process changed accordingly. The authors wrote, "During the three years following the Hinckley acquittal, Congress and half of the states enacted changes in the insanity defense, all limiting use of the defense. Congress and nine states limited the substantive test of insanity; Congress and seven states shifted the burden of proof to the defendant, eight states supplemented the insanity verdict with a separate verdict of guilty but mentally ill (GBMI), and one state, Utah, abolished the defense outright."

The article notes the evolution of the insanity defense and how American courts had used the M'Naghten Rule which had been established after the 1843 assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Robert Peel. American courts used this standard. Under this rule, insanity was hard to prove but was used to acquit many obviously insane offenders.

I find this passage from the article interesting. It reads, "Before the 1970's, the public outcry over a jury finding a person not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) was not nearly as great as it is today. In that time period, insanity acquitted defendants regularly spent many years (even a lifetime) locked in institutions for the criminally insane. An insanity acquittal was a showing of compassion and a recognition of the cruelty to inflict punishment on someone who did not know his actions were wrong. More importantly, the public could rest assured that a person committed to a mental institution would not be walking the streets anytime in the near future (if ever). "

However, the authors note that better medical treatment and advocates for the rights of the mentally ill have resulted in many insanity defense acquitted individuals walking free in a few short years. This, coupled with Hinckley being perceived as getting away with the attempted murder of the President of the USA, resulted in a clamp down of this defense.

This is an interesting and easy to read website. I had not thought of how advances in mental health care, coupled with a single notorious case, could so drastically alter the legal landscape.

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