The Case of John W. Hinckley, Jr. and the Attempted Assassination of President Reagan
Television replays show John Hinckley's March 30, 1981, attempt to kill President Ronald Reagan. When Hinckley came to trial 15 months later, his lawyers didn't dispute the evidence that he had planned the attack, bought special bullets, tracked the president, and fired from a shooter's crouch. But he couldn't help it, they claimed; he was only responding to the driving forces of a diseased mind. Dr. William Carpenter, one of the defense psychiatrists, testified that Hinckley did not "appreciate" what he was doing; he had lost the ability to control himself.
The defense in John Hinckley's trial made several other claims:
1. Hinckley's actions reflected his pathological obsession with the movie Taxi Driver, in which Jodie Foster starred as a 12-year-old prostitute. The title character, Travis Bickle, is a loner who is rejected by the character played by Cybill Shepherd and subsequently befriends Foster's character; he stalks a political candidate but eventually engages in a bloody shootout to rescue the Foster character. It was reported that Hinckley had seen the movie 15 times and that he so identified with the hero that he had been driven to reenact the fictional events in hisown life (Winslade & Ross, 1983).
2. Although there appeared to be planning on Hinckley's part, it was really the movie script that provided the planning force. The defense argued, "A mind that is so influenced by the outside world is a mind out of control and beyond responsibility" (Winslade & Ross, 1983, p. 188).
3. The defense tried to introduce the results of a CAT scan—an image of Hinckley's brain using computerized axial tomography—to support its contention that he had schizophrenia. The admissibility of this evidence created a controversy at the trial. The prosecution objected, claiming that all the apparent scientific rigor of this procedure—the physical evidence, the numerical responses—would cause the jury to place undue importance on it. The prosecution also contended that there were no grounds for concluding that the presence of abnormal brain tissue necessarily denoted schizophrenia. Initially, the judge rejected therequest to admit this testimony, but he later reversed the decision on the ground that it might be relevant.
Mr. Hinckley was acquitted by reason of insanity and hospitalized at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a forensic facility in Washington, D.C., where he remained until he was fully released in September 2016 to live with his elderly mother.
Critical Thought Question
The Hinckley defense argued that he was so influenced by the movie "Taxi Driver" that he was not in control of his actions and therefore (under the prevailing federal insanity standard at that time) not guilty by reason of insanity. If you had been a member of the jury, how much weight would you have placed on evidence that he had seen the movie many times and seemed to be reenacting parts of it in his own life?