- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

Today John Hinckley, the would-be assassin of President Reagan in 1981, will have a hearing to determine whether he may now have unsupervised leaves, the step before full release from St. Elizabeths Hospital in D.C. The leaves constitute, as his lawyers put it, a “critical component” of Hinckley’s treatment, which is a relevant consideration if you believe Hinckley’s well-being is an important concern.

It is fair to say there has been no verdict that has had more of an effect on the public contempt for the insanity plea than the “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict enjoyed by John Hinckley Jr. pursuant to his premeditated attack on President Reagan. That vicious assassination attempt in which several people were shot in addition to the president left Press Secretary James Brady permanently brain-damaged and injured Secret Serviceman Timothy McCarthy and D.C. Police Officer Thomas Delahanty.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has what its members might call multiple personality disorder with respect to its position(s) on the insanity defense and psychiatric predictions of dangerousness.

On its Web site, the APA tells interested parties approvingly that “not guilty by reason of insanity” means that if the perpetrator of a crime “could not tell right from wrong or could not control his or her behavior because of mental defect or illness … [the law holds that said person] should not be held criminally responsible for his or her behavior.”

The APA then, due to its apparent feeling of guilt for supporting such an escape for killers, rationalizes the use of the insanity plea by pointing out the infrequency of its use. The organization argues in a peculiar and inelegant non sequitur that this infrequency coupled with the fact that the plea often has the imprimatur of the prosecution proves the “insanity defense is rarely used by ‘fakers.’ ”

(The reference to the relatively infrequent use of the plea argument hides the fact that in absolute numbers thousands of felonious acts over the years go unpunished because of successful use of the insanity plea.)

Then the APA articulates a position inconsistent with the claim of validity of the insanity plea, saying psychiatrists “should not answer questions on what lawyers call ‘ultimate issues’ — i.e. whether the defendant meets the legal test for insanity.”

When found “not guilty by reason of insanity,” the defendant may subsequently attain a hearing at any time and try to demonstrate that he or she is, as the APA puts it, “no longer a danger to self or others and is therefore eligible to be released.” Psychiatrists are then called upon to state whether the defendant is safe to be allowed unsupervised temporary or permanent release.

But the APA Statement on Prediction of Dangerousness says “psychiatrists have no special knowledge or ability with which to predict dangerous behavior.”

Repeatedly in the years since his insanity acquittal, Hinckley, his parents, his counsel and his psychiatrists have attempted to secure his freedom.

In 1987, he wanted permission to visit his parents, but a year earlier had sought the address of Charles Manson and had actually corresponded with mass murderer Ted Bundy.

In addition, Hinckley’s previous attempts to gain leaves have elicited information from his psychiatrists that he has had an obsession with violent books (about which, his longtime and current attorney Barry Levine maintained “books aren’t weapons”) and that he once made attempts to secure a .38 special (one supposes weapons are weapons).

Hinckley has consistently been denied unsupervised leaves, although he has been allowed supervised leaves to Washington for which the federal court and Secret Service are notified. In her 1997 denial of unsupervised leaves for Hinckley (reaffirmed in 2000) U.S. District Judge June L. Green said simply he had “deceived those treating him in ways too numerous to recount” and may still be dangerous.

There is no reason to believe that verdict’s rationale is not still valid. More important, there is no reason to jeopardize innocent people and ignore the victims’ and their loved ones’ sensitivities for a psychological experiment for which even the APA itself won’t vouch.

Richard E. Vatz is a professor at Towson University and is also associate psychology editor at USA Today Magazine


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