Prominent D.C. lawyer Joseph E. diGenova has billed himself as a battle-tested former prosecutor who, as the U.S. attorney in the nation’s capital, supervised the high-profile prosecution of John W. Hinckley Jr., who tried to kill President Reagan.
But Mr. diGenova had no role in the prosecution or the trial, according to court records and those who did prosecute the case. Although Hinckley was listed on his law firm biography for 10 years as one of his biggest cases as U.S. attorney, he wasn’t the U.S. attorney when the case was tried. He was named to the post 17 months after the case ended.
“Mr. diGenova played no role in the trial and did not supervise the case,” said Washington lawyer Roger M. Adelman, lead prosecutor who began working on the Hinckley case right after Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.
Mr. Adelman asked Mr. diGenova this year to change his biography, which said that as the U.S. attorney in Washington from 1983 to 1988 he “supervised the prosecution of attempted presidential assassin, John W. Hinckley.” The biography now says he was the “principal assistant U.S. attorney” during the Hinckley prosecution.
But the change did not satisfy Marc B. Tucker, another member of the Hinckley prosecution team and now a lawyer in private practice. He said he was “enraged” by the original biography and that he had “never seen anything quite like this.” He said the revised version “still implies” that Mr. diGenova had a role in the case.
“Joe had nothing to do with the case,” said Mr. Tucker. “He wasn’t involved in any strategy sessions. He never met with us. … He tried to sell himself through false advertising. He went out of his way to establish a significant connection to a case he had nothing to do with. … He wanted credit for it.”
Another member of the trial team, Robert R. Chapman, said the case was supervised by U.S. Attorney Stanley S. Harris, whom he described as being “actively involved.” He said Mr. Harris sat at the counsel’s table during the trial and jury selection.
“I don’t remember [Mr. diGenova] ever being seated at the counsel’s table. … That is what transpired,” said the retired prosecutor. “I was in the trenches and I know who did the heavy lifting and who was responsible for directing the prosecution.”
Reagan named Mr. Harris in November 1983 as a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Mr. Harris assumed senior status in February 1996 and retired in June 2001.
Mr. Harris said in a statement that after his Feb. 5, 1982, appointment as U.S. attorney, the Hinckley case immediately absorbed much of his time and that the many other demands of the country’s largest U.S. attorneys’ office necessitated that Mr. diGenova, his principal assistant, not be involved in the Hinckley case so he could be totally free for other duties.
“I so advised him months before the trial, and thereafter he played no role — supervisory (in any way) or otherwise — until I left the office to become a judge … roughly a year-and-a-half after the trial,” Mr. Harris said.
He said that although the jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity, that decision led to a major improvement in the insanity law. He said the prosecution team did “an absolutely superb job.”
“Certainly Mr. diGenova is free to talk about the case, the insanity defense and the question of Mr. Hinckley’s present dangerousness,” he said. “He should not, however, cause people to believe that he played a role in the supervision or prosecution of the case, when he did not.”
Mr. diGenova said he was “a supervisor in the office” during the Hinckley trial and that, while Mr. Harris oversaw the case on a day-to-day basis, the two of them “would chat about it.” He said he never sat at the counsel’s table but did watch some of the trial.
“People can quibble, but I was in the supervisory chain,” he said. “My biography does not say I tried the case.”
He said those who called his biography misleading were “entitled to their opinion,” but as the former principal assistant, he had a “responsibility to talk about the case and defend the prosecution.” Asked why he changed the biography if it was not incorrect, he said he did it “as a courtesy to Roger.” He also said he was “delighted” to do so.
Mr. diGenova, who has done numerous newspaper and television interviews on the Hinckley case, also said he did not feel the need to correct reporters who misstated his role in it. “You can spend your life correcting news stories,” he said.
Later, Mr. diGenova declined to answer any further questions, saying in a statement: “We lost perhaps the most significant case in the history of the office. Roger Adelman who led the trial team has refused to talk to the press about it. Someone had to defend the office and help the public understand why the federal insanity defense was flawed and why Hinckley remained a danger.”
“Nothing in Mr. diGenova’s version of events occurring well after the trial ended gives him the right to repeatedly misrepresent his role in the trial,” said Mr. Adelman. “He had no role at all. Nor does it justify his taking credit for the work of others.”
Every year, Mr. Tucker said, Mr. Adelman organizes a luncheon for those who worked directly or tangentially on the Hinckley case. “I can tell you that to my knowledge, Joe has never been invited and no one even considered inviting Joe because he was not even tangentially involved.”