Jack Hinckley, John's father, hired an expensive defense team lead by Vincent Fuller, a partner in the prestigious Washington firm of Williams & Connolly. The defense team made two unsuccessful efforts to strike a plea agreement prior to trial. The defense proposed a plea of guilty in exchange for a recommendation to serve sentences concurrently rather than consecutively; this would amount to approximately fifteen years in jail rather than life imprisonment. The prosecution was in no mood to strike deals with a would-be presidential assassin and refused to bargain. This move left the defense with the one alternative; enter a plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity ("NGRI"). It would take almost two months and three million dollars before the trial of John Hinckley came to an end.
Roger Adelman opened for the prosecution and carefully explained to the jury the mounds of evidence that pointed directly to John Hinckley. Adelman walked the jury through the events of March 30, 1981 step-by-step and stressed the pieces of evidence demonstrating the careful planning and execution on the part of Hinckley.
Opening for the defense team, Vincent Fuller immediately stepped into action to convince the jury that Hinckley was not guilty because of criminal insanity. The defense strategy was apparent from the start; convince the jury that the actions of March 30, 1981 were not of a sane man. It seemed like an almost impossible task, however, because of the overwhelming evidence that suggested Hinckley should be responsible. There was substantial evidence of Hinckley's stalking both President Carter and President Reagan across the country, Hinckley's deliberate selection of deadly Devastator ammunition, not to mention the media videotape and dozens of witnesses who saw Hinckley shoot the president.
THE PROSECUTION'S CASE
The prosecution introduced nine witnesses total including Thomas Delahanty and Timothy McCarthy who testified about the events on March 30. The jury was shown photographs of the scene at the Washington Hilton and bloodstained clothing of the victims. The prosecution also introduced television footage of former President Jimmy Carter's 1980 visit to Ohio where John Hinckley's face was visible in the crowd. It was all part of the government's strategy to show a pattern of presidential stalking which began with Carter and ended with Reagan.
An attendant at a rifle range near Denver, Colorado testified that Hinckley went to the range for target practice in the months preceding the shooting. The last initial witness called for the prosecution was a neurosurgeon at George Washington University Hospital who described the devastating path Hinckley's bullet took through James Brady's brain.
THE DEFENSE CASE
The defense hit the ground running by setting the stage for an insanity defense. Both of Hinckley's parents, Jack and Jo Ann, took the stand. They both described their son's lifestyle and behavior patterns in early childhood. They told the jury of John's wealthy and loving upbringing, but explained how John was a loner and preferred to be alone at home rather than out with friends. In fact, throughout the trial, the defense was unable to produce a single person who could vouch for their status as a "friend" to John Hinckley; he simply had none. Jack Hinckley broke down on the stand and blamed himself for forcing John out of the house at a time when John could not cope with reality.
A number of physicians detailed John's numerous trips to the doctor's office, prescription medications, and continued physical problems. One of the doctors, Dr. Rosen, practiced at John's college and testified that John was "depressive reactive." Rosen suggested John seek a psychiatric evaluation in July 1980, but John refused. On cross-examination, the prosecution pointed out that Hinckley never showed any outward signs of delusion or hallucination.
Colorado psychiatrist, Dr. John Hopper, testified for the defense as well. He originally diagnosed John (incorrectly) as an unmotivated kid needing behavioral therapy. On cross, Hopper admitted that John never revealed that he purchased a gun and planned to commit suicide where Beatles' singer John Lennon was murdered. Both of Hinckley's siblings, Diane and Scott, told the jury about John's odd behavior while growing up. John was described as depressed and emotionless. Diane testified that John was only close to one person in the world; her infant son.
Then, the defense played a videotaped deposition of Jodie Foster for the jury. At the time, Jodie was a 19 year old student at Yale University. On the video, she explained how she entered Yale in the fall of 1980 and soon began receiving letters from John Hinckley. None of the letters were mailed; all were left in her dorm mailbox or slipped underneath her door. She explained how the third batch of letters alarmed her and she gave them to the University Dean. When asked what type of relationship she had with John Hinckley, she replied, "I don't have any relationship with John Hinckley." The courtroom proceedings were interrupted when John Hinckley, who up until this point remained silent, jumped up and raced towards the television set with one arm extended. Four United States Marshals immediately ran towards Hinckley and he quickly bolted out the back door of the courtroom.
After this notable outburst, both the defense and prosecution began to put on expert witnesses to illustrate Hinckley's state on March 30, 1981 -- was he insane?
THE PARADE OF EXPERT WITNESSES
At the time of Hinckley's trial, the defense was responsible for bringing up the issue of insanity in the form of expert witnesses. After the presentation of initial witnesses, the defense raised insanity by putting on a number of expert witnesses. First up for the defense was Dr. Carpenter, an expert in schizophrenia. Dr. Carpenter told the jury that Hinckley was unable to separate reality from fiction and explained the symptoms of schizophrenics. Carpenter testified that schizophrenics snatch fragments of identity from films and books. He explained that Hinckley's obsession with the film Taxi Driver was the perfect example of this behavior -- Hinckley imitated the lead character in the movie by stalking presidents, eating the same food, and wearing the same clothes. Dr. Carpenter also told the jury how Hinckley, shortly after being kicked out of his parent's home, signed a motel register as "Travis Bickle" (lead character in the film).
Another defense expert, Dr. David Bear of Harvard Medical School, told the jury that Hinckley was a psychotic. The remaining two defense experts, Dr. Ernst Prelinger and Dr. Thomas Goldman, both agreed that Hinckley acted out of an obsession for Jodie Foster. In their opinion, Hinckley was not emotionally aware of any actions that he took.
At the close of the expert testimony, the defense rested.
THE PROSECUTION'S SECOND TURN
Now that the defense had raised the theory of insanity, the prosecution had the chance to put on its own witnesses to counter the defense of insanity.
From the start, the strength of the prosecution's case was quite apparent. Dozens of witnesses and reporters had witnessed Hinckley's actions in shooting Reagan. The prosecution introduced witness after witness to demonstrate for the jury the careful planning and premeditation that had taken place prior to the shooting. Hinckley had stalked President Reagan throughout various parts of the country; he was even arrested in New York transporting weapons on one of his previous stalking trips. Prosecutors also showed how Hinckley carefully chose six deadly "Devastator" bullets from a pile of ordinary ammunition. The officers arresting Hinckley after the shooting testified about Hinckley's seemingly normal behavior after the shooting. They testified how Hinckley laughed and joked with them; and asked their opinion on if the shooting would preempt the Academy Awards that evening.
But, perhaps the best evidence of Hinckley's state of mind was a letter written on March 30, 1981. It was written to Jodie Foster less than two hours before the assassination attempt. In it, John professed his love for Jodie and related his personal reasons for killing President Reagan.
The heart of the prosecution's case was simple -- if someone was not visibly mad, lacked seizures, and lacked hallucinations, they must be sane.
THE BATTLE OF THE EXPERTS
The Hinckley trial took many confusing turns for the jury; especially the portion of the trial in which experts testified. For every expert produced by the defense, the prosecution brought in one who disagreed. The prosecution took center stage and produced two key witnesses: Dr. Sally Johnson and Dr. Park Dietz. Both agreed that Hinckley was a troubled young man and classified him as having a "narcissistic personality disorder." However, both prosecution doctors believed Hinckley was in complete control of himself at all relevant times and fully aware of what actions he was taking. In other words, the mental defect did not "cause" Hinckley to shoot the president; thus, making him guilty of the crime.
The defense fired back with its own expert witnesses; three psychiatrists and one psychologist. They testified that Hinckley lived in a world of "delusions" which caused his actions.
The crux of the case consisted of psychiatric and psychological testimony regarding the defendant's state of mind during the shooting. Both the defense and prosecution introduced expert witnesses on the issue and subjected the jury to weeks of conflicting and often irreconcilable testimony.
There was really no doubt that Hinckley had psychological difficulties; testimony about his troubles fills thousands of pages of trial transcripts. These pages are filled with stories of Hinckley's childhood fears, social withdrawal, abnormal dependency on his mother, attention-seeking behavior, interest in violent people, and his incessant fantasies about an unattainable woman; Jodie Foster.
The jury's confusion came from the opposite conclusions reached by the prosecution and defense experts based on the same body of evidence. For example, Hinckley's imaginary girlfriend was seen by the defense as evidence of a delusional mind; the prosecution, however, saw the girlfriend as someone invented by Hinckley to consciously manipulate his parents since every mention of the imaginary girlfriend accompanied a request for money.
Hinckley's attempts to "woo" Jodie Foster were characterized as "bizarre" by defense psychiatrist David Bear, "a sign of disordered thought." Contrarily, the prosecution psychiatrist, Roger Adelman, called these attempts as simply based on "poor judgment" and hardly associated with mental disease. Prosecution witness Dr. Park Dietz told the jury that Hinckley had a very realistic grasp on his chances with Jodie Foster.
Not to be outdone, the defense team discussed at length Hinckley's attempts to imitate Travis Bickle (lead character in Taxi Driver) insisting that Hinckley thought he was Travis Bickle. The defense pointed to the similarities between Hinckley and Bickle -- e.g. stalking a presidential candidate, dressing similarly, picking up teenage prostitutes in New York, and drinking peach brandy.
Nonsense, responded Dr. Dietz for the prosecution, Hinckley only imitated Bickle, but never lost sight of the fact that he was John Hinckley. Even Dr. Thomas C. Goldman, testifying for the defense, had to admit on cross that Hinckley was never confused about who he was.
The issues were further complicated when the prosecution made accusations that Hinckley was able to manipulate the psychiatrists called on his behalf much like he manipulated his parents. Prosecutors introduced evidence that Hinckley was familiar with the art of "malingering" or faking mental illness. Prosecutors even hinted that Hinckley's doctors were cooperating in this faking effort and actually coached Hinckley during interviews to make it appear he was more disturbed than in reality. Dr. Dietz, prosecution psychiatrist, charged that coaching was part of the defense team's "legal strategy."
Dr. Sally Johnson, prosecution psychiatrist who spent the longest amount of time with Hinckley, added to the speculation of defense coaching. She interviewed him daily for almost four months while he was confined in North Carolina. Johnson testified that Hinckley's knowledge of information about symptoms of schizophrenia and the influence of Taxi Driver increased dramatically after he began meeting with his own psychiatrists. Her allegations were supported when Dr. William Carpenter, defense psychiatrist, admitted to showing Hinckley a book which listed the symptoms of schizophrenia. Vincent Fuller tried to discount these revelations by suggesting that Hinckley was attracted to Dr. Johnson and was just trying to impress her by telling her what she wanted to hear.
In the end, the jury was subjected to weeks of confusing testimony from expert witnesses. The final tally: four psychiatrists and a psychologist claiming Hinckley was insane; three psychiatrists and a psychologist claiming Hinckley was sane, suggesting the only reason he might appear to be insane was because he was shown how to appear crazy by his own doctors.
THE SULCI CONTROVERSY
The defense also faced problems when it attempted to admit a CAT-scan of Hinckley's brain as proof of his insanity. Medical experts were not sure how, if at all, such evidence related to schizophrenia. But, Dr. David Bear, defense expert, was convinced it was essential to his diagnosis. After an initial court ruling to exclude the evidence, the prosecution waived its objection and allowed slide projectors to show the CAT-scan's to the jury. Unfortunately, with the images also came a new battery of experts to interpret the meaning of the CAT-scans. Everyone agreed that on the images Hinckley's brain sulci -- spaces between the skull and brain -- appeared wider than normal. Dr. Bear insisted that Hinckley's sulci showed a heightened probability of schizophrenia because 1 in 3 schizophrenic patients suffered from this condition compared to 1 in 50 normal persons. The prosecution quickly brought out that 2/3 of schizophrenics had normal sulci and Dr. Bear could offer no explanation. More experts were brought in to discuss the widened sulci; but none of the experts could really be sure of its significance.
The final piece of evidence shown to the jury was the movie Taxi Driver which triggered many of Hinckley's problems -- including his obsession with Jodie Foster. At the close of the film, the defense rested, ending the seemingly endless presentation of testimony.
THE PROSECUTION'S CLOSING
In his closing argument for the prosecution, Roger Adelman recounted seemingly overwhelming evidence that the attack on President Reagan was cold-blooded and planned. He told the jury that all the evidence showed Hinckley was very much aware of his actions before, during, and after the shooting. Adelman reminded the jury about Hinckley's stalking of the president, his letter to Jodie Foster, and his careful selection of Devastator bullets. He also highlighted Hinckley's actions after the arrest; specifically inquiring about whether the Academy Awards would be pre-empted. All of these actions, Adelman insisted, left little doubt about Hinckley's intentions.
FOR THE DEFENSE -- VINCENT FULLER
Fuller began his closing by going over the mound of psychiatric testimony and the events in Hinckley's troubled life. He then turned his attention to the letter John wrote to Foster in the hours before the shooting. "It was delusional thinking," he said, "pure and simple." Indisputable and "pathetic" evidence of a very sick mind. He urged the jury to ask themselves how anyone could think they could "impress" a woman by shooting the president, unless that person were insane.
Suddenly, Judge Parker interrupted Fuller and called a recess. Fuller was confused, "What's the problem?", he asked the judge. "Your client is crying," replied the judge. Fuller turned in amazement and looked at Hinckley. It was true -- Hinckley was covering his face and weeping. This was only the second time throughout the trial that Hinckley had showed the least bit of emotion.
Hinckley's parents would later comment that their son had not cried since he was seven years old. Shocked, Fuller took a break, gathered his composure, and finished his closing argument.
THE JURY INSTRUCTIONS
Judge Parker informed the jury that they must return a verdict of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity if they decided that, as a result of mental disease or defect, Hinckley lacked "substantial capacity to either conform his conduct to the law or appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct." He reminded the jury that the burden was on the state to prove Hinckley sane beyond a reasonable doubt.
THE VERDICT -- NOT GUILTY BY REASON OF INSANITY
It took only four days for the jury to answer the judge's question affirmatively; Hinckley was insane when he shot President Reagan. Hinckley was acquitted of all thirteen criminal counts. The jury found a reasonable doubt existed about Hinckley's sanity during the assassination; thus, he could not be criminally responsible. (Link to Reasons for Verdict)
Immediately, Hinckley was escorted from the federal courthouse and committed to St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C.. In the meantime, the nation was shocked, angered, and outraged at the "acquittal." Hinckley only added fuel to the fire by phoning the Washington Post shortly after his commitment and informing them that "I'm going to walk out the door whether the public likes it or not." The nation's uproar would continue and alter the insanity defense for years to come. Link to Insanity after Hinckley. Link to Myths about Insanity.
The final tab: $ 3 million dollars for the trial; $1 million apiece for the prosecution and defense; $ 1 million on police and security. One psychiatrist billed the government almost $120,000 -- one thousand hours at $120 per hour.
THE PROSECUTION'S UPHILL BATTLE
From the start, the prosecution faced an uphill battle trying to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Hinckley's acknowledged mental defects had nothing to do with the shooting of President Reagan and three others; if the prosecution could not prove Hinckley's sanity, the verdict was required to be not guilty by reason of insanity. Unlike previous insanity tests such as M'Naghten, the test in Washington D.C. set a standard favoring the defendant.