On March 30, 1981, as former President Ronald Reagan left the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C., John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate the president. Hinckley drew his revolver and fired six rounds, injuring President Reagan and three other individuals. Roughly a year after the assassination attempt, Hinckley, who faced 13 criminal charges, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a federally operated psychiatric facility in Washington D.C. Today, 35 years after that fateful day Hinckley decided to pull the trigger, a federal judge ruled that he shall be released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to live with his mother in her home as early as August 5th. Many of the questions that members of the “Court of Public Opinion” are asking includes, “How could he possibly be released? Why isn’t he serving a life sentence? How was he ever initially found not guilty by reason of insanity?”
The American legal system is a living, breathing entity that evolves frequently. The court’s highly controversial decision that ruled Hinckley not guilty by insanity sparked serious concern throughout the United States. Since this case was decided, the laws regarding what qualifies a person as legally insane have undergone a major evolution.
At the time of the Hinckley verdict, the burden of proof to prove that a person wasn’t insane was on the prosecutor. In other words, the prosecutor was responsible to demonstrate and convince the court that the individual facing criminal charges was not insane. As a result of the Hinckley decision, many states began amending their laws concerning the defense of insanity. A few states went as far as eliminating the defense entirely. Two years after the Hinckley decision, the nation’s widespread disapproval of the Hinckley verdict ultimately led to a legislative response. In 1984, Congress enacted the Insanity Defense Reform Act, which imposed new standards that created significant obstacles for the attainment of a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. The primary legal change since the Hinckley verdict is that most states now remove the burden on the prosecution and put it exclusively on the defendant, to prove that he/she suffered from a mental defect or disease and didn’t know right from wrong at the time the offense was committed. This legal evolution goes even further when states began to modify their rules of evidence, which prohibited certain experts from testifying at trial to prove that a defendant was legally insane.
If Hinckley were tried today, I am confident that the verdict would have been different. If the burden of proof was on him to prove insanity as opposed to being on the prosecution to prove he wasn’t insane, I am fairly certain he would have been found guilty and given a life sentence. That would make his upcoming release less likely. The impact of the changes to the insanity laws is that more mentally ill defendants are found guilty and wind up in prison as opposed to mental hospitals. While the US Bureau of Justice estimates that roughly 16 percent of prisoners in the United States are mentally ill, I believe the actual number to be much greater. The Hinckley verdict marked the outset of a major change in the laws concerning the insanity defense.