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In this discussion, I will be focussing on two case studies; the one of John Hinckley Jr and the one of Peter Sutcliffe. These are poignant cases as each had different outcomes, while following a similar procedure of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’.

John Hinckley Jr

The case

In 1981, John Hinckley Jr had become obsessed to the 1976 film ‘Taxi Driver’, with him watching it at least a dozen times in one night. This film is based around a plot, constructed by a depressed and lonely young man, with the aim to kill a presidential candidate, in order to save a young prostitute. The main actress in this film is Jodie Foster, whom Hinckley become particularly infatuated with. This fixation lead Hinckley to attempt, in vain, to assassinate President Ronald Reagan with an effort to impress his obsession, Jodie Foster. One of the bullets fired towards the president ricocheted off of a presidential limousine and hit him in the chest wounding, but not killing, him. Hinckley also wounded police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy. However, Press Secretary James Brady was critically injured from being hit in the right side of the head by a stray bullet, and endured a long recuperation period, remaining paralysed on the left side of his body until his death on August 4, 2014. Brady’s death was ruled a homicide 33 years after the shooting, despite no further action following this. This was due to the fact that Hinckley had eventually been convicted and confined to a psychiatric hospital.

John Hinckley Jr was 25 years old at the time of his crime and there was absolutely no question that he was a troubled young man. Both the defence and prosecution agreed that he experienced insanity at the moment of the offence but did not agree of the type. Defence claimed that Hinckley should not be held accountable for the shootings because he was suffering from both schizophrenia and a major depressive disorder. Whereas, prosecution suggested that Hinckley was sane and should be found guilty because he was only suffering from depressive neurosis and personality disorders. The problem for the prosecution was that to convict Hinckley for the assassination attempt, they had to prove that the defendant was either not mentally ill, or if he was, that he could still recognise the wrongfulness of his actions and adhere to the law. sectioned under Section 35 of the Mental Health Act to assess his sanity. A jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982, sentencing him to commission in to St Elizabeth’s Hospital for as long as needed to regain sanity, as far as possible.

Early on in Hinckley’ residency at St Elizabeth’s, he showed strange interests, developing a pen-pal friendship with convicted serial killer Ted Bundy, until Bundy’s execution in 1989. However, by the late 1990s, Hinckley’s parents claimed that he had made significant progress in his recovery and in July 2016, he had been deemed fit for release to live, with restrictions, with his 90 year old mother in Williamsburg, Virginia. He spent 35 years in St Elizabeth’s Hospital, being treated for Schizotypal Personality (principal diagnosis); Borderline Personality; Narcissistic Personality; Major Depression, recurrent, in partial remission; and Schizoid Personality (premorbid).

Controversy surrounding the case

The case of John Hinckley Jr was one that sparked a considerable amount of controversy and conflict. An ABC News poll was taken the day after Hinckley’s verdict, showing 83% of those polled thinking that justice was not done in the Hinckley case. Some people, despite a significant lack of evidence, speculated that this was due to an anti-Reagan bias on the part the jury, which was made up of eleven black people and one white person. Many more people, however, blamed a legal system that, they claimed, made it too easy for juries to return not guilty verdicts in insanity cases. This idea seems to be absurd as, generally internationally, such pleas are made in only 2% of criminal cases and fail over 75% of the time.

Impacts on the US legal system

In this way, it seems that the misconception of the plea is not limited to only those that took the ABC poll. A 1981 study of Wyoming residents found people believed the insanity defence was raised in 43% of cases over a two-year period, where in fact, only 102 defendants — less than 1% of all defendants — raised the plea in this state, and only 1 of the 102 was acquitted. Dr Jeffrey Janofsky, president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law states that, there is a misperception that the insanity defence is frequently used and frequently successful. There is a huge group of people with mental illness that commit crimes. They just don’t meet the test . Jeffrey Smith of Greenville, S.C., who has served as an expert psychiatric witness in insanity plea cases postulates that, a psychiatrist doesn’t have an X-ray that can show clearly someone has a broken bone…. it’s a confusing situation for juries.

After the verdict of John Hinckley Jr. states tightened their use of the insanity plea further, with some variation to extent, depending on each state and it’s governments. Within a month of Hinckley’s verdict, Congress held hearings regarding the use of the insanity defence. Within three years, half of the states enacted laws to limit the defence’s use. One state, Utah, abolished the defence completely. A “guilty but mentally ill” option is then offered. However, this is disputed as this option does not necessarily protect defendants against harsh sentences, as not guilty by reason of insanity does. Following this, however, some states decide that psychopaths should be barred from using their diagnosis as a defence. Sequentially, four states banned the use of the insanity plea.

From the federal aspect, the Insanity Defence Act of 1984 altered the defence to only apply in cases in which the defendant was “unable to appreciate the nature of the wrongfulness of his acts” at the time of the offence. Before this Act, and so at Hinckley’s trial, the plea could be used if he were unable to conform his conduct to the law. Furthermore, the reformation of the Act established the burden of proof of the defendant in order to determine insanity through using clear and convincing evidence; while also limiting the gamut of testimony from experts on the ultimate legal issue of the defendant’s sanity. Amended by the Act, Rule 704 of the Federal Rules of Evidence now states, “Now, no expert witness testifying with respect to the mental state or condition of a defendant in a criminal case may state an opinion or inference as to whether the defendant did or did not have the mental state or condition constituting an element of the crime charged or a defence thereto. Such ultimate issues are for the trier of fact alone.”

My opinion

In this case, John Hinckley Jr was acquitted of attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on the principle that he was unaware of the implication of his actions due to, primarily, schizophrenia. Despite this case causing controversy to such an extent, to me, this seems like a fair judgement. Without even looking at any psychiatric evaluations, it is clear to see that Hinckley was have some kind of trouble due to his infatuation with Jodie Foster and the film Taxidriver.

It seems that overall, the plea of insanity is misunderstood. People tend to think that it is an ‘easy way out’ and that the defendants have been ‘let off’, however, this is not the case. When, and if, a defendant is acquitted by the NGRI plea, they are almost always sent to a psychiatric unit, where they remain, often for longer than that of which their sentence would have otherwise been. Through looking at the plea’s statistics, it is clear to see that it is widely underused, allowing such a small minority to reap the effects of it.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.