“Not guilty by reason of….”

"President Reagan attends his first cabinet meeting after the assassination attempt," April 24, 1981 (Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum)

In 2011, a lone gunman opened fire at a political event in Tucson, Arizona, killing six and severely wounding Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. In the aftermath of the tragedy, a federal judge ruled that the suspect charged in the Tucson shooting “was not mentally competent to stand trial.”

The attack and the later legal ruling were not an unprecedented event in American history. Less than three decades earlier on June 21, 1982, a federal court had found President Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin not guilty by reason of insanity.

President Reagan was wounded when a bullet ricocheted off the Presidential limousine, puncturing his lung and lodging itself within an inch of his heart.

Secret Service agents rushed the President to George Washington University Hospital, where doctors performed successful surgery to remove the bullet. He fully recovered and was able to return to the Oval Office less than a month later, on April 25.

So what happened to John Hinckley, Jr.?

On June 21, 1982, a jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity. Hinckley had a history of mental illness and had exhibited increasingly erratic behavior in the months leading up to the shooting.

The public response to Hinckley’s acquittal was overwhelmingly negative. As a result, Congress passed the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which made attaining a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity considerably more complicated at the federal level. Throughout the 1980s, many states would emulate the federal government and pass similar versions of the Insanity Defense Reform Act.

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