The Hinckley Trial and Its Aftermath

Stephanie S

The Assassination Attempt of Ronald Reagan

Reagan moments before being shot.

On March 30, 1981, as President Ronald Reagan entered a Washington Hotel to give a talk, he was shot once in the chest. In addition to wounding the President, the shooter also managed to shoot a police officer, a Secret Service agent, and the press secretary, James Brady.

John W. Hinckley, Jr., a 25 year-old college dropout from a wealthy family, was immediately apprehended and later identified as the shooter.

The Hinckley Trial

John W. Hinckley, Jr.

Hinckley’s trial began a year later on May 4, 1982 and a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity was entered. During the seven week trial, it was revealed that Hinckley was obsessed with actress Jodie Foster and that he wrote her a letter describing his plans to assassinate President Reagan in her honor. After three days of deliberation by the jury, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he resides today.

Government’s Response to the Hinckley Verdict

After the Hinckley verdict was announced, there was a public outcry and backlash. A number of changes were made to the insanity defense shortly after.

80% of insanity reforms that took place between 1978 and 1990 took place shortly after the Hinckley verdict. Within a month of the trial’s conclusion, the House and Senate held hearings regarding the use of the insanity defense.

Nearly half of the states enacted placed stricter limitations on the use of the insanity defense such as adopting the M’Naghten standard over the ALI standard, shifting the burden of proof to the defendant, and supplementing the insanity verdict with a separate verdict of guilty but mentally ill.

By 1986, Montana, Idaho, and Utah abolished the use of the insanity defense altogether.

The Federal Insanity Defense Act of 1984

Signed into law on October 12, 1984, the Insanity Defense Reform Act gave new outlines for individuals suffering from a mental disease or defect who are involved in the criminal justice system. The most significant provisions are:

  1. significantly modified the standard for insanity previously applied in the Federal courts;
  2. placed the burden of proof on the defendant to establish the defense by clear and convincing evidence;
  3. limited the scope of expert testimony on ultimate legal issues;
  4. eliminated the defense of diminished capacity;
  5. created a special verdict of “not guilty only by reason of insanity,” which triggers a commitment proceeding; and
  6. provided for Federal commitment of persons who become insane after having been found guilty or while serving a Federal prison sentence.

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Gerber, Rudolph J. (1984). The insanity defense. Port Washington,  New York: Associated Faculty Press.

Low, Peter W. (1986). The trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr. : a case study in the insanity defense. NY : Foundation Press.

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