The Monday morning quarterbacks at the local courthouse are certain that if John W. Hinckley Jr. had been tried in D.C. Superior Court, he would now be on his way to prison.
That's because, under D.C. rules, the defense has the burden of convincing the jury, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a defendant is insane. In a tie, the prosecution wins.
But under the federal rules, the prosecutors had to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt," a much higher standard of proof, that Hinckley was sane--at best an onerous burden.
Former U.S. Attorney Charles F.C. Ruff, now at Covington & Burling, made the decision last summer to try Hinckley, who faced local as well as federal charges, in the federal court.
Ruff said last week he was aware when the decision was made to go federal that Hinckley would use an insanity defense and the prosecution might have an easier time of it in the city court.
But taking Hinckley to the city court on charges of assault with intent to kill while armed (which carry a sentence of 15 years to life for each count) would have meant not using the federal law passed in 1965 that specifically made attempts to assassinate presidents a "preeminently federal offense," Ruff said. When both federal and local charges are brought, the case must be tried in federal court, Ruff said.
"The policy is that we do not make calls on where cases ought to be tried based on strategic considerations, but where the cases belong as a matter of policy," Ruff said.