Today the airwaves are ablaze with news that John Hinckley, Jr. — would-be assassin of President Reagan — will be released from a mental institution to live with his elderly mother. United States District Judge Paul L. Friedman's order permitting this release comes more than 35 years after Hinckley's bloody assault, which wounded President Reagan, gravely and permanently disabled his press secretary James Brady, and injured a police officer and a secret service agent.
People are outraged. Why wouldn't they be? Assassinations have cast a grim pall over American history. President Reagan was well-liked and is nearly revered in retrospect. The assassination attempt was a formative event in the memory of many people my age. How, people ask, can you shoot four people, one of them a President, and ever see the light of day again? If any act requires permanent confinement, isn't it this one?
The answer should comfort us, not terrify us: the rule of law applies to everyone, even the notorious. (Edited to add: or, at least, it ought to.)
Hinckley was not convicted of the attempted murder of President Reagan — a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Criminal defense lawyers will tell you that it is exceptionally difficult to convince a jury to reach such a verdict. In (another) era of great anxiety of crime, in a case involving a popular President, the odds were weighed even more heavily against Hinckley. If you think that it's outrageous that someone who tries to kill the President could use the insanity defense, bear in mind that the defense has its roots in cases of mentally ill people attempting assassinations. Nevertheless, public outrage led to nationwide narrowing of the defense, notwithstanding the fact that it was rarely used and even more rarely successful.
Now, after 35 years of confinement (with gradually increasing exceptions) in a mental institution, the court has found that Hinckley is suitable for release under the provisions of the relevant laws governing patients committed to institutions after such verdicts:
(e) . . . . The court shall weigh the evidence and, if the court finds that such person has recovered his sanity and will not in the reasonable future be dangerous to himself or others, the court shall order such person unconditionally released from further confinement in said hospital.
It was not a casual decision. Judge Friedman's order is 103 pages long, and builds on a history of other long orders. The order meticulously reviews the testimony at an evidentiary hearing, the unanimous conclusions of multiple doctors (including the government's own experts) regarding Hinckley's mental state and lack of dangerousness, and the history of his gradually increasing liberties granted by the hospital and the court. In addition, the court sets rather rigorous limitations on Hinckley's freedom, considerably in excess of what one would normally see for a convict released on parole or supervised release — for instance, the court limits Hinckley's access to the internet and ability to communicate with the public to head off the sort of attention-seeking and grandiosity that was part of his delusional structure (see page 99-100 of the order).
Perhaps you find Hinckley's release outrageous. If so, ask yourself why. Is the outrageous part that there's a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity? Is the outrageous part that a jury found it applied, in a case where everyone agreed that Hinckley was crazy, and only disagreed about whether he was responsible? Is the outrageous part that such people can be released after 35 years under strict conditions if doctors agree they are in remission and not dangerous? Is the outrageous part that a judge found that the facts here warranted such a release? Or is the outrageous part that some crimes are so notorious that you think they should be outside the rules, outside the rule of law?
Is John Hinckley, Jr. dangerous to society? Doctors don't think so after 35 years, and he's successfully completed many outside visits and excursions to date. Is it dangerous to have a legal norm that the gravely mentally ill who commit violence may eventually be released? I doubt 35 years of forced treatment and confinement is the sort of lenity that leads anyone to violence. What about exceptions to the rule of law? If we ignore the rules and evidence because a particular person is sufficiently notorious, because of our gut, how dangerous is that?