In the John Hinckley Jr. verdict, the jurors served justice and society well. Their choice was between punishment and therapy, and they correctly--and humanely--saw that Hinckley had the right to be put in the care of psychiatrists, not jailers.
The verdict provoked the predictable denunciations from those who think the courts are too lenient, sentences too short, criminals too coddled, prisons too few and defense psychiatrists too muddled. At last count, every one of the standard simplisms has been voiced--from high places, as in Treasury Secretary Donald Regan's raving exaggeration that the "the crazies" have been sent a message by the verdict, and from man-on-the-street reactions that another killer has been turned loose.
One purpose of juries is to protect justice from the gut feelings of the mob. The 12 District of Columbia citizens on the jury did this. But now that the court of reason has been adjourned, the thinking of the armchair jurors must be dealt with.
Three allegations are being heard:
Hinckley has gone "scot-free." He hasn't at all. A chance exists that he will be confined to St. Elizabeths or other mental hospitals longer than if he were sentenced to a maximum security prison. It is unlikely that psychiatrists at St. Elizabeths will be anxious to sign their names any time soon on a release slip for Hinckley. Public pressure, not to mention peer pressure, is too great for that. The gunman who shot Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 was confined for 31 years--until his death --after being found insane.
When released, Hinckley will try to murder again. Penologists have been reporting for some time that people who kill or try to kill seldom repeat the crime. Unlike the murders in mystery novels, the ones in the street, or living room, or barroom are mostly unplanned outbursts of uncontrolled emotions. It is not going too far to argue that every killer in these kinds of murder is insane at the raging moment he seeks to destroy a life.
Hinckley, it is true, was a stalker who planned his attack. But the jury decided that the planning itself was an act of derangement. In other recent well-publicized murder trials-- those of Jean Harris, Claus von Bulow--juries saw no pattern of mental disease that mitigated responsibility.
The insanity defense itself is crazy. It is, if raw vengeance is the purpose of criminal law. But justice, much less vengeance, is never fully visited on any criminal. Not only are punishments uneven--felons in one state may get double the time of felons in another, poor and black criminals are treated more harshly than the rich and white-- but the victim's, or victim's family's, rights are seldom considered in the way that they should be.
Those rights aren't served by doing away with the criminal insanity statutes. After someone commits an act against society, the distinction between insanity and sanity makes less of a difference than trying to protect everyone's rights--the victim's, the criminal's and society's. If the effort for balance isn't made, then justice suffers by exactly the measure of that failure.
In all cases, the chances for society's protection would be increased if criminals were given therapy rather than only imprisonment. This is no liberal pipe dream. Why do prison staffs include psychiatrists and psychologists unless judges and jailers at least recognize the value of mental health care for criminals?
The ideal of caring is there, even though in our overcrowded and inhuman prisons it is unlikely to be carried out meaningfully. A character in "Going Crazy" by Otto Friedrich captures the feeling: "Here I sit--mad as the Hatter-- with nothing to do but either become madder or else recover enough of my sanity to be allowed to go back to the life which drove me mad."
Whatever sent John Hinckley into madness shouldn't drive the courts or legislatures to strike down the insanity laws. Nor should the circusy spectacle of one psychiatrist saying Hinckley is rational and another declaring him a lunatic mean that the law is unworkable because it let Hinckley "get away."
If the jury had found Hinckley guilty, some of the public's instinct for vengeance might have been temporarily satisfied. But permanent damage would have been done to the rights of all the mentally ill.