There's a new report today that St. Elizabeth's Hospital, where John Hinckley, Jr., has lived for more than twenty years, is seeking to release him from inpatient treatment to live with his mother. Naturally, this is leading to the inevitable wails that he should never be released after what he did, and on and on.
The people who want to keep him locked up are wrong. Hinckley, his lawyers, and the hospital that wants to discharge him are right. There are a number of reasons for this.
First off: he was acquitted. Like other people charged with a crime in the United States, the government presented its case before a jury of his peers. To convict him the government needed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and it didn't. No matter what you think of the insanity defense, it's not a technicality. If someone makes the incredibly rare accomplishment of prevailing on an insanity defense that person is not criminally liable.
Not guilty. Period. That means that no matter how much you don't like what he did, you don't get to keep punishing him. A defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity is not sent to prison, but is sent to an institution for treatment until he or she can be safely discharged to the community. The Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to continue to hospitalize someone involuntarily unless it is shown that the person is both mentally ill and a danger to himself or others. Once the defendant's innocence has been established, the question is not what the person did in the past, but on what will happen if the person is released. “A finding of “mental illness” alone cannot justify a State's locking a person up against his will and keeping him indefinitely in simple custodial confinement. Assuming that that term can be given a reasonably precise content and that the “mentally ill” can be identified with reasonable accuracy, there is still no constitutional basis for confining such persons involuntarily if they are dangerous to no one and can live safely in freedom.“
Second, Hinckley is a danger to nobody. His track record over the last twenty years, time when he has been confined to the hospital but has had chances to go out on unsupervised visits to family and friends, shows that. He has had no violent incidents, he returns when he's supposed to return, and he cooperates with treatment. There is no reason to believe that keeping him locked up will reduce any danger he poses to himself or others, mainly because it has been decades since he has done anything dangerous.
I have represented clients who have killed people when suffering from untreated mental illness, and I have argued successfully for their release from hospitalization. I know that cases like this are emotionally upsetting to members of the public and to prosecutors. As reported in the Washington Post, “Prosecutors pointed out that unlike other aging patients with disabilities who have supportive families, Hinckley is an attempted assassin who shot the president and three others.” I'm used to hearing this kind of argument because I've heard it myself in cases that I have handled, but the argument misses the point. These cases always involve violent, sometimes deadly acts, but that is not the end of the story. As a matter of law, as a matter of common sense, and as a matter of basic morality, we do not have the right to lock up a person who has been acquitted of a crime and who poses no danger to others if he or she is released.
In the Hinckley case the court will undoubtedly examine the treatment he has received since the last time his restrictions were loosened. It will examine whether he complies with treatment, and whether his behavior, which includes one or two minor slips in the last few years, demonstrates that he is dangerous or safe. When all these factors are examined, the likely outcome is that he will be discharged to live with his mother, with the support of other family members if that becomes necessary.
That will be the right outcome.