Thursday, July 28, 2016

John Hinckley Jr. and the Insanity Defense

In March of 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster.

By United States Federal Bureau of Investigation - FBI Field Office Washington, Public Domain,

Though his assassination attempt was unsuccessful, Reagan was wounded, as were three other men: a secret service agent, Timothy McCarthy; Reagan's press secretary, James Brady (who was critically injured and partially paralyzed as a result); and a police officer, Thomas Delahanty. In his trial, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and has been confined to a mental hospital for the last 35 years. In August, he is scheduled to be released.

The verdict in the case resulted in national outcry, and fueled public belief that the insanity defense is too easy to get (and that insanity is too easy to fake). It's important to note, though, that prior to the Hinckley case, the insanity defense was used in only 2% of cases, and when used, was successful only 25% of the time. This case resulted in the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which made it more difficult for individuals to plead not guilty by reason of insanity in federal cases, and changed the burden of proof. Before this law was passed, the prosecution had to prove the defendant was sane beyond a reasonable doubt; after the law was passed, the defense now has to prove the defendant was insane by clear and convincing evidence. Expert witnesses who are brought in to provide testimony on the defendant's sanity are also prohibited from discussing opinions on the ultimate issue (that is, "is the defendant insane?"). All they can do is provide information from their assessment of the defendant and potentially interviews with significant others, and the jury must decide on the issue of sanity.

The Insanity Defense Reform Act remains controversial, especially among psychologists and psychiatrists, since lay people tend to have very different definitions of sanity and may also believe many myths (such as that people who use the insanity defense are faking). Taking away the option to provide opinions on the ultimate issue allows jurors to put words in experts mouths, and draw on their current understanding of mental health/illness - which may be completely wrong.

In fact, even in the Hinckley case, much of the public thought he was faking to "escape justice." Never mind the fact that the has been incarcerated (yes in a hospital, not a prison, but still) for 35 years. His diagnoses include narcissistic and schizoid personality disorders (with some characteristics of borderline personality disorder), and dysthymia (a form of depression). And in the past, he has shown that his obsession with Jodie Foster remains, though he has been provided some home visit privileges since 2005. So it is disconcerting to me that the case that made it more difficult to people to use the insanity defense was one in which (in my opinion), the defendant was clearly insane and not taking advantage of some legal loophole.

The changes in burden of proof in the policy may or may not be warranted - I'll leave that to people who know more about law than me, though it seems that since in criminal cases, the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (while the defense technically doesn't have to prove anything), shifting the burden to the defense when the insanity defense is used is a bit asymmetrical. Though the Insanity Defense Reform Act applies to federal cases only, some states have followed suit by shifting the burden of proof onto the defendant.

I kind of wish I were still teaching Psychology & Law, so I could discuss these new events and see how they shift people's perspective on the insanity defense. For my part, I suspected Hinckley would spend the rest of his life in a mental hospital, considering his diagnoses, though he will remain supervised for the foreseeable future.

No comments:

Post a Comment