For those of us growing up in the Washington area in the ’60s and ’70s, a familiar field trip destination was the St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital.
We visited at a time of population decline at the historic facility, hearing details of the merits of deinstitutionalization. But for the average area sixth-grader, it remained a staple of the coarse playground taunts of the day, as in: “Billy’s crazy; he’ll probably wind up in St. Elizabeth’s.”
Six years after I graduated from high school, John Hinckley actually did wind up at St. Elizabeth’s. And now he is getting out.
Great message: Shoot a president, enjoy your golden years in freedom at your parents’ house in lovely colonial Williamsburg.
But for those of us sharply displeased with this decision, where do we direct our criticism?
It is easy to start with U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, whose order unlocks the door for Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin next month. In reading his logic, it is easy to find qualifiers that might suggest this is not the safest bet. In granting Hinckley’s release, he refers to a “preponderance of the evidence” that Hinckley will not be a societal danger in “the reasonable future.”
Well, what about the evidence to the contrary? And what about whatever passes for the unreasonable future?
As recently as last year, Hinckley deceived the court as to his whereabouts during unsupervised periods visiting his mother 150 miles away from the hospital. This is not strong evidence that he plans to shoot another president or anyone else. But it does not seem to be the kind of glowing portrait of stability that one might require before telling the man who tried to kill Ronald Reagan that he is now freed for perhaps as many years as he was confined.
There might be judges who would find reasons not to afford a man who attempted murder such latitude. But moving beyond Friedman, we stub our toes on the insanity of the insanity defense.
How exactly did we get to a place where our custody of heinous criminals evaporates if they sort of, you know, get better?
I understand the urge to create a distinction between cold-eyed killers who knew exactly what they were doing and unhinged souls driven by disorders we cannot hope to fully understand. But they have one thing in common: We would prefer not to run into either of them at Denny’s some years down the road.
I hear Andrea Yates is a quiet, pleasant presence in the state hospital in Kerrville, Texas, showing no compulsions to drown more children. Shall we swing wide the doors of freedom for her, too? No? Why not? Is it because what she did was really, really bad — compared with, say, trying to kill the leader of the free world? Is it because she succeeded where Hinckley failed? Could we keep him from among us if he had been a better shot?
Such are the travesties of the insanity defense, which spares us the angst of locking people up forever when we aren’t so sure they knew what they were doing.
Well, I’m not so sure I care.
I am more than willing to note the point at which insane murderous people shed their pathologies. If, like Hinckley, their passions have graduated from assassination to guitar and photography, I am also willing to treat them to Ping-Pong and cable TV for the rest of their days in a minimum-security facility.
But it is a perversion of justice to allow them to come out of their confinement just because a judge thinks they have come out of the fog.
Mark Davis is the host of a radio show in North Texas.
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