James Brady death a homicide: Will Hinkley be charged?

The attempt on Ronald Reagan's life / Wikipedia image, no author information
The attempt on Ronald Reagan's life / Wikipedia image, no author information

WASHINGTON, August 10, 2014 – A Northern Virginia medical examiner ruled Friday that the death of James Brady, former press secretary to President Reagan, was a homicide.

Brady was shot by John Hinkley in an assassination attempt on Reagan in March, 1981. Hinkley was found not guilty of attempted assassination and related charges by reason of insanity and has spent most of the last 33 years institutionalized.

Reagan, Brady, Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy, and D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty were all injured in the attack, with Brady’s brain injury being the most serious. Brady remained incapacitated for the rest of his life. After an autopsy, the medical examiner determined that Brady died of his injuries.

Whether a federal prosecutor will take that ruling and run with it is an open question. Hinkley could now be charged with Brady’s murder, or the prosecutors may decide to do nothing.

The charge of “delayed murder” is legally tricky to make stick. The prosecutor must show that Hinkley’s attack set in motion a chain of events that led directly to Brady’s death. Hinkley is responsible for everything flowing from the chain of events that he initiated, but proving that the chain is unbroken from the shooting until Brady’s death over the last 33 years could be a tough legal challenge.

In 1966, Philadelphia police officer Walter Barclay Jr. was shot in the spine by William J. Barnes. Barclay was paralyzed, and Barnes served 20 years in prison for the crime. When Barclay died of a urinary tract infection in 2007, District Attorney Lynne Abraham charged Barnes with murder.

Abraham was unable to prove her case against Barnes. While urinary tract infections are common among people with spinal injuries, Barclay had twice injured his spine again in the years after his shooting in car accidents, so the chain leading to his fatal urinary tract infection could not be decisively linked to Barnes.

There have been other prosecutions for delayed murder, and the courts have consistently ruled that, even if the original crime was prosecuted as a lesser charge, the death of the victim permits a new, higher charge of homicide. As Judith Kay, New York’s chief judge ruled in such a case, “In an era where medical advances can prolong the life of a critically injured victim, a prosecution must proceed on the basis of the victim’s present condition. Where death follows, however, it is also in society’s interest that a homicide be redressed.”

Two other cases of delayed murder have been brought so far in 2014. One involves a man who beat his infant daughter brutally in 1991; Amanda Lane-Woodall suffered from cerebral palsy and diabetes as a result and remained bedridden until her death in 2013. The prosecutor intends to show that her death resulted directly from her beating. The other involves the death of a man last year who was paralyzed after he was shot in the spine in New York in 1984. Carlos Carromero, who was found guilty of that shooting, now faces a murder trial.

Barnes, Lane, Carromero and others charged of delayed murder were all found guilty of the initial attack. Hinkley’s case is different; he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. This makes the prosecutor’s case more difficult, especially since Hinkley remains institutionalized as a mental health patient. It is unlikely that Hinkley will be charged with Brady’s murder, and (and because) it is unlikely that such a prosecution would succeed.

Hinkley’s attorney, Barry Levin told 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.” He is probably right.

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