Medical examiner rules James Brady’s death a homicide

Monday’s death of President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary James S. Brady has been ruled a homicide resulting from the gunshot wound he suffered in the assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981, more than three decades ago.

The ruling was made by the medical examiner’s office in Virginia, where Brady, 73, died in an Alexandria retirement community, and was announced Friday by Gwendolyn Crump, the D.C. police department’s chief spokeswoman.

There was no immediate word on whether the shooter, John W. Hinckley Jr., who has been treated at St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital since his trial, could face new criminal charges. Hinckley, 59, was found not guilty by reason of insanity after he shot Reagan and three others on March 30, 1981.

But the decision to pronounce Brady’s death a homicide 33 years after he was wounded outside the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue NW raises questions about whether prosecutors can, and will, try to get around double jeopardy — the legal concept that protects a person from being tried twice for the same crime — and pursue a murder charge.

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Friday that prosecutors are reviewing the ruling and that his office would have “no further comment at this time.”

James Brady, the former press secretary to President Reagan, has died. Current White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reflected on Brady's legacy during Monday's daily briefing. (The Associated Press)

In recent years, Hinckley has been granted extended trips away from St. Elizabeths and can now spend as many as 17 days a month with his mother in Williamsburg. His attorney, Barry Wm. Levine, said he had not seen the medical examiner’s report but was confident that there is nothing for prosecutors to consider.

“The prosecution will face insurmountable legal barriers to any prosecution,” he said. “It ought to be self-evident. Is there any conceivable theory of facts that would differ from the facts that applied to the prosecution in 1982? Is there something new or different other than the fact that Brady died? [Hinckley] was found not guilty of the assault. How could he be found guilty of the more serious charge?”

He said Hinckley “has lived his whole life since that event riddled by guilt, and he has the greatest respect for the Bradys and the greatest amount of remorse for what happened. A sensitive public would know that at the time he committed that act, he was ravaged by mental disease.”

The shooting of Brady three decades ago and the revelation of Hinckley’s mental illness — he told authorities he hoped that assassinating Reagan would impress the actress Jodie Foster — had largely faded from the headlines until Brady’s death this week.

Brady, along with his wife, Sarah, became leading advocates of gun control after the shooting, fighting six years for passage of legislation requiring background checks for handguns bought from federally licensed dealers.

Gail Hoffman, a Brady family spokeswoman, said she could not immediately comment on the decision but said “Jim had been suffering health issues since the shooting.”

Prosecutors would face several hurdles if they decided to file new charges against Hinckley, including overcoming possible challenges to the medical examiner’s ruling. Hinckley had been charged with 13 counts, two of them related to Brady’s shooting: assault with intent to kill and a firearms offense.


John Hinckley Jr. arrives at U.S. District Court on Nov. 18, 2003, in Washington. Hinckley was in court to request he be allowed to visit his parents without supervision. (EVAN VUCCI/AP)

Thomas Zeno, the former prosecutor who for decades led the government’s efforts to block Hinckley’s requests for more freedom, said he expected his former colleagues to weigh charging Hinckley with Brady’s death.

“They are going to have to look at the legal questions,” he said. “They are going to have to look at the factual questions, if they can really show the direct linkage [between the assault and Brady’s death] beyond a reasonable doubt. And then they are going to have to make the decision about whether it is the right thing to do.”

Mark MacDougall, a former federal prosecutor, said “the real hurdle for the government would seem to be proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Hinckley actually caused Mr. Brady’s death 33 years after the shooting.”

But such cases are becoming more common as advances in medical care help people live longer.

In 2007, a Pennsylvania man who had served 16 years for shooting a police officer in 1966 was arrested again and charged with murder after the officer’s death, which was ruled a homicide based on the bullet wound 41 years earlier. The man was tried by a jury and acquitted.

And in 2012, there was a shooting case in the District that was ruled a homicide when the victim died 23 years later. In that case, the shooter was serving an 85-year prison sentence. New charges were not filed.

Brady was shot some 69 days into the Reagan presidency. The day of the shooting, he had at first asked an aide to accompany the president on a routine assignment — to address a gathering of the AFL-CIO at the hotel.

He changed his mind at the last minute.

After Reagan spoke to the union delegates, he and his party left the hotel and were walking to the presidential limousine when they were fired on about 2:30 p.m.

Brady was hit first, above the left eye. The bullet that entered his head shattered into more than two-dozen fragments. Reagan was hit by a bullet that ricocheted off the limousine. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty were also wounded.

Brady’s recovery was marked by ups and downs. Within several months, he underwent two surgeries to stop spinal fluid from leaking from his cranial cavity, had an operation for a pulmonary embolism, and had epileptic seizures, pneumonia and persistent fevers.

He was discharged from the hospital but needed continuous nursing care at home. He also required extensive outpatient physical therapy. A year later, he was back in the hospital because of a blood clot in his left leg, which had been partially paralyzed, along with his left arm.

Hinckley was at St. Elizabeths, where his attorney and health-care workers petitioned for him to be allowed off hospital grounds. It set off a legal battle, and in December, a federal judge gave Hinckley more freedom, allowing him to spend more than two weeks in his mother’s home town of Williamsburg.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman, in a 106-page opinion, expanded Hinckley’s monthly Virginia visits from 10 days. Friedman wrote that Hinckley “will not be a danger to himself or to others.”

He said longer periods away from the hospital might “provide new opportunities for employment and structured community activities.”

Hinckley’s doctors and therapists had asked Friedman to increase the length of Hinckley’s trips to his mother’s home to up to 24 days and eventually allow him to live there full time.

Friedman, though, wrote that it would be “unwise” to allow Hinckley more freedom without further evaluation. Hinckley, he said, “continues to exhibit deceptive behavior even when there are no symptoms of psychosis or depression” and had “not cultivated any friends or established ties to any groups of people in Williamsburg.”

Adam Goldman and Annys Shin contributed to this report.

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Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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