WASHINGTON — Trying to bring a case against John Hinckley Jr. in the homicide of former White House press secretary James Brady could prove difficult for prosecutors, given the three decades that have passed since he was shot in an assassination try on Ronald Reagan and because a jury ruled that Hinckley was insane when he opened fire, an attorney and law professor said.
A medical examiner determined that Monday’s death of Brady at age 73 was a homicide, even all these years later, with an autopsy revealing the cause to be the gunshot wound to the head he suffered in 1981 and its health consequences, District of Columbia police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said in a news release Friday.
Federal prosecutors said only that they are reviewing the ruling. But bringing new charges against the 59-year-old in Brady’s death seemed unlikely, at least two people said.
“I think it (the medical examiner’s ruling) will mean nothing,” long-time Hinckley attorney Barry Levine told The Associated Press. “No prosecutors will bring such a case. The notion that this could be a successful prosecution is far-fetched. There is no legal basis to pursue this.”
Brady lived through hours of delicate surgery right after the shooting and further operations over the past 33 years, but never regained normal use of his limbs and was often in a wheelchair.
Besides partial paralysis from brain damage, Brady suffered short-term memory impairment, slurred speech and constant pain, though it didn’t stop his pursuit of stronger gun control laws. His family said he died at his Virginia home from a series of health issues. Nancy Bull, district administrator for the Virginia medical examiner’s office, which made the ruling, declined to disclose any more results of the autopsy and referred inquiries to District police.
Tung Yin, a professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, said Friday that it’s rare that the act that could be considered the cause of a murder occurred so long ago.
“It seems a little bit unprecedented,” Yin said of the Virginia medical examiner’s ruling. He said such cases more likely involve a person in a coma who dies some time later.
He said bringing such a case could cause problems for prosecutors, because Hinckley Jr. was found was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“A jury has already concluded on the same incident that he (Hinckley Jr.) was not guilty. Nothing today changes that,” Yin said, even if prosecutors say Hinckley is no longer insane. “That doesn’t change what he was 33 years ago.”
Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981, just two months into the new president’s term. Reagan nearly died from a chest wound. Three others, including Brady, were struck by bullets from Hinckley’s handgun.
In 1982, Hinckley Jr. the insanity verdict came for all charges in a 13-count indictment, including federal counts of attempted assassination of the president of the United States, assault on a federal officer, and use of a firearm in the commission of a federal offense, as well as District of Columbia offenses of attempted murder, assault, and weapons charges. The District of Columbia offenses included charges related to the shooting of Brady.
Levine said prosecutors would have the additional challenge of proving that Brady’s death this week was the result of an act 33 years ago. “How do you prove causation beyond a reasonable doubt?” he asked.
Gail Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Brady’s family, said the homicide ruling “is not a surprise to any of us.” She said the family would respect whatever prosecutors think is appropriate in dealing with the ruling.
Levine said that Hinckley wanted to express his deep sympathy for Brady’s family. “He has the highest regard for (James) Brady,” he said.
Officials at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where Hinckley is a patient, have said that the mental illness that led him to shoot Reagan in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster has been in remission for decades. Hinckley has been allowed to leave the hospital to visit his mother’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia, and can now spend more than half of his time outside the hospital on such visits.
Levine doesn’t expect the homicide ruling to affect Hinckley continuing to be allowed to continue the visits.
“The court has found he has regained his mental health,” Levine said.
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