John Hinckley Jr. and the Insanity Defense: How Associations Responded

After would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. was found not guilty by reason of insanity, three of the most prominent U.S. associations went to great lengths to debate the legal and public-interest issues the ruling created. A judge ruled last week to allow for Hinckley's release from a mental hospital.

John Hinckley Jr. is being released from a Washington, DC, mental hospital, 35 years after attempting to assassinate sitting President Ronald Reagan.

The attempt failed, but Reagan was wounded, along with a Secret Service agent and former White House Press Secretary James Brady, the latter of whom became a prominent gun-control advocate as a result of his injuries.

Hinckley’s mental state—he claimed to have attacked the president in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster, who starred in Taxi Driver, a film that included an assassination plot line—has complicated the long-running legal saga. And his release still comes with an emotional sting that goes all the way back to his trial, in which he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

“Contrary to the judge’s decision, we believe John Hinckley is still a threat to others and we strongly oppose his release,” the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute said in a prepared statement, acquired by NPR.

Hinckley’s trial created some very deep questions around the insanity defense, questions that three major associations—the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and the American Bar Association (ABA)—grappled with for years after the Hinckley verdict was announced.

Back in June, as part of its 50th anniversary retrospective, Psychiatric News highlighted how, in the face of calls to end the insanity defense once and for all, APA stood up for the principle, helping to keep it around in a narrower form, while working with ABA on an approach that would jibe in the legal world.

APA established a task force to debate the issue and plot out a form of the insanity defense that would both scale back its problems, while still allowing for a path forward for proving in court that mental health issues occasionally made it difficult for perpetrators to understand their actions.

Meanwhile, ABA worked on a proposal of its own, and the two groups released separate proposals on the issue around the same time.

“APA and the ABA agreed on a compromise position that maintained the longstanding logic behind the insanity defense that differentiated between behavior driven by mental illness versus an intrinsic desire to harm,” Paul S. Appelbaum, M.D., a Columbia University psychiatry professor, noted to Psychiatric News.

Despite this, however, AMA ultimately came out against the insanity defense in a 1983 vote, with the AMA’s president-elect at the time, Dr. Joseph F. Boyle, citing how removing the defense tactic could have led to tougher convictions for both Hinckley and Dan White, the former San Francisco supervisor who assassinated gay-rights icon Harvey Milk.

“If our policy had been adopted earlier, it would have prevented Dan White from pleading diminished capacity and John Hinckley would have been found guilty of having the intent to kill,” Boyle said, according to The New York Times.

Appelbaum noted that many in the psychiatric community considered AMA’s response to be political in nature.

“The AMA’s position arose partly because of a desire to protect the medical profession from the sight of unseemly ‘battles of the experts,’ such as occurred at Hinckley’s trial,” he said.

Ultimately, the roles that these associations took helped to mold the future of the insanity defense around the country. Some states banned it outright; the federal government, along with a number of other states, worked to rein it in.

Appelbaum noted that APA’s principled stance on the issue played an important role in defining the association to the public.

“The process demonstrated the value of having an organization to speak for psychiatry at the national level,” he added in his Psychiatric News comments. “APA played a role in holding back demands for unreasonable change while still allowing for public safety.”

Hinckley, shown in 2004. (Brendan Smialowski/Reuters)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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