Ethics Quote Of The Week: Popehat’s Ken White

john-hinckley-jr

“How, people ask, can you shoot four people, one of them a President, and ever see the light of day again? If any act requires permanent confinement, isn’t it this one? The answer should comfort us, not terrify us: the rule of law applies to everyone, even the notorious. (Edited to add: or, at least, it ought to.)..

Is John Hinckley, Jr. dangerous to society? Doctors don’t think so after 35 years, and he’s successfully completed many outside visits and excursions to date. Is it dangerous to have a legal norm that the gravely mentally ill who commit violence may eventually be released? I doubt 35 years of forced treatment and confinement is the sort of leniency that leads anyone to violence. What about exceptions to the rule of law? If we ignore the rules and evidence because a particular person is sufficiently notorious, because of our gut, how dangerous is that?”

—–Popehat lawyer/blogger Ken White, in a post explaining why the outrage of some over the imminent release of John Hinckley, Jr. is one more example of the public and the news media being willing to jettison the basic principles of American justice because it seem right.

(Answer: Very dangerous indeed.)

I admire Ken for his post (as I do for most of his posts) because first, it is extremely timely, with both conservatives and progressives itching to jail various individuals—cops, Hillary Clinton– who they just know deserve to be in prison, and thinking that’s justice. Second, Ken was much nicer in his explanation than I would have been.

I mostly missed this controversy, in part because it doesn’t seem to me that it should be controversial to anyone with the level of comprehension of our criminal justice system that a mature, educated and responsible citizen should have. Where’s the controversy? Hinckley wasn’t found guilty of trying to assassinate President Reagan and wounding  him and three others in the process. He was acquitted, because he was so crazy that under the insanity defense, he was found to lack the necessary mens rea to find him culpable for his own acts. He wasn’t sentenced to spend all this time in a mental hospital as punishment, but as treatment. Now that doctors have found him sane, of course they are letting him out. He committed no crime, in the eyes of the law, and sane people who have not been convicted of crimes get to be free, like you and me.

What’s so hard about that?

Well, it is hard for some people, and Ken is remarkably clear and patient in explaining why, as he says, we should be comforted that a Hinckley is still protected by the rule of law.

I won’t blame Jodie Foster if she isn’t comforted, though. That’s a lot to ask.

36 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Popehat’s Ken White

  1. Hinkley should have never got out of prison. Consider the awful damage he did to James Brady and the fact that shooting President Reagan may have contributed to his developing dementia while in office. The attorney who represented him said that Brady was diagnosed as variously having schizophrenia, schizoid personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, with bipolar and passive-aggressive features. He should have been sent to a federal prison to rot.

    • This is the kind of comment that causes me to reply to cmments; I’d go nuts if I just let readers pile up stuff like this.

      WHAT???? Did you read my post and Ken’s? Did you understand it? It appears not. Now, if you want to argue that they should get rid of the insanity defense, I’m with you all the way. He did the crime, and his illness might be a valid consideration in sentencing, but it should affect the determination of guilt. That’s not the law, however. The verdict was NOT GUILTY by reason of insanity, and that’s the verdict Hinckley got, fair and square, and as Ken pointed out, it’s amazing that he got it. But he did. Writing “Hinkley should have never got out of prison” is like writing “Gore was elected President.” The law is clear, and we shouldn’t do things in defiance of the law because we don’t like the results if we follow them in a particular situation. It makes no difference now what he did then, what matters is that NOW he is a man without a criminal conviction, and in this country, we don’t keep sane people who haven’t been found guilty of a crime in jail, and it’s a damn good thing, because a country that does is a danger to every citizen.

      He’s sane, and he’s been found not guilty by a jury. He HAS to get out of prison. Obviously.

      I said that I wouldn’t be as nice about this issue as Ken.

      • “…in this country, we don’t keep sane people who haven’t been found guilty of a crime in jail, and it’s a damn good thing, because a country that does is a danger to every citizen.”

        The above is one of the most important observations that Jack has written. It scares the you-know-what out of me that so many of our citizens either do not understand it or do contend against it.

    • What part of “lacked mens rea” escapes your comprehension? He was incompetent to be a criminal because of his mental state, and was not legally responsible for his bad acts. That’s how our system found Hinckley.

      No doubt you’re right he did horrible damage to all those affected, but he was insane at the time. In this country, we don’t hold the insane culpable for bad acts, because they lack the vicious will to meet the legal standard of conviction. Instead, we protect them and society by confining them to mental hospitals until professionals can assure themselves and us that the person is sane and no longer a danger.

      Apparently, that took 35 long years for Hinckley, but it eventually happened. So he has been returned to society as per our laws, apparently a sane and mentally sufficient person.

      The act of not condemning the insane as criminals is known as compassion, something that apparently, a few of us lack. Bloody-minded vengeance is a poor substitute.

      • How do you know that he was insane? Some of the diagnosis I named were personality disorders. A person with a personality disorder by definition isn’t insane. Hinkley’s lawyer was smart enough to get some hired guns psychologists who were smart enough to give him a diagnosis that would help him escape federal prison and be sent to a mental hospital for involuntary commitment. People do not recover from schizophrenia with current treatment. I suggest that you check out the current DSM to verify these issues.

        • How do we know a convicted criminal is guilty? Or that George Zimmerman shot in self-defense? We know because our society decides in a trial, and the jury believed the testimony and evidence showing that Hinckley was guilty. As Ken said, the bias against him must have been tremendous. If the jury agreed that he was insane, it had to be a very strong case.

        • We’ll try this again. “Sane” and “Insane” are not psychological diagnosis, they are legal terms. What they refer to is the ability of a given defendant to distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the alleged violation. You will not find them in the DSM.

  2. “…mature, educated and responsible citizen…”

    And herein lies the problem. Darned few of us left. Me and thee, of course.

  3. As it stands, the verdict is what the verdict is, “justice” was served in the eyes of the law at that moment in time; everyone needs to accept that fact and move on.

    My problem with this whole thing is the fact that John Hinckley, Jr. actually committed the crime and he received a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict when John Hinckley, Jr. actually committed the crime. As far as I am concerned “by reason of insanity” is just another excuse and I hate excuses! What if they had found John Hinckley, Jr. to be sane after 5, 10 or even 15 years; would they have released him like they are doing now?

    Here is a question to think about, answering the question here is not necessary: If a sane person went out and shot 4 people without killing any of them, where at least one of the four counts is attempted murder, what would a reasonable prison sentence be for the shooter? Is 35 years enough time for such a crime? What is your personal opinion on that?

    Personally I think that a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity should not be available to legal systems anywhere in the USA. If a criminal act has been committed and they have the person that committed the act, regardless of sanity, then the verdict should be guilty and the sentenced accordingly; the insanity part should only affect where the criminal is placed. That criminal should be put in either a mental hospital or prison based on his or her level of sanity at that moment in time and if they are put in a mental hospital then when they are deemed “sane” they should serve out the remainder of their sentence in prison otherwise they should serve their entire sentence in the mental hospital.

    I also have a real problem with many of the early release programs for violent criminals. When it comes to violent crimes, a sentence is a sentence; do the crime, do the time – no exceptions.

    • The only problem with that, Z, is that once the sentence is completed, they would have to be released, EVEN IF THEY WERE STILL DANGEROUS TO THEMSELVES, OTHERS OR SOCIETY. This way, They can be held until that is no longer the case.

      In any case, why would you think that punishing someone for bad behavior would be effective if they were incapable of recognizing the behavior as “bad”? If that is the case, they will almost certainly not recognize the punishment as punishment, nor recognize the connection to the “bad” behavior.

        • Not really. First of all, “sane” and “insane” are legal terms and have little or no relevance in the field of psychology. They simply mean that the person knows or does not know that the exhibited behavior was wrong when he exhibited it. The true and only relevant criteria for hospitalization is, bluntly, is that person a danger to him/her-self or others. All I was saying is that if you sentence somebody to, say, 35 years, but find them insane and hospitalize them, you have to let them go at the end of 35 years, even is they are crazy as hoot owls (a very technical term used in psychology) and likely to brutally murder everybody within arms reach. I’m NOT in favor of that.

          • dragin_dragon said, “All I was saying is that if you sentence somebody to, say, 35 years, but find them insane and hospitalize them, you have to let them go at the end of 35 years, even is they are crazy as hoot owls (a very technical term used in psychology) and likely to brutally murder everybody within arms reach. I’m NOT in favor of that.

            Well, I’m not in favor of that either; but you need to think a little outside the box you’ve contained yourself in. There is absolutely nothing stopping the court from committing the individual to an institution for insanity after the sentence has been served; it’s a separate thing and it should be dealt with separately. People who are not criminals are legally committed for insanity, this is no different.

            • Really? “…the box you’ve contained yourself in…”? Trust me, I’m very much aware of involuntary commitments, and the requirements for them, having retired as a psychologist after something like 40 years in the field.

              • dragin_dragon said, “Really? “…the box you’ve contained yourself in…”? Trust me, I’m very much aware of involuntary commitments, and the requirements for them, having retired as a psychologist after something like 40 years in the field.”

                So why aren’t you applying your knowledge base to this?

                After a criminal has served his/her sentence for the crime they commit, it’s ethically wrong to continue the sentence indefinitely, they have paid their debt to society; where as a separate involuntary commitment could permanently solve the problem if their dangerously to society due to their mental illness.

                  • I considered a response to this comment, but decided to pass. Ad Hominem attacks are childish and not worth replying to with substance.

                    • dragin_dragon said, “I considered a response to this comment, but decided to pass. Ad Hominem attacks are childish and not worth replying to with substance.”

                      Really? What you posted was a response to my comment. Is logic new to you? 😉

                      P.S. Beth got exactly the same statement from me a while back when she used “trust me”; any one else I see using the phrase will get the same reply from me. Share your opinion all you want but don’t give us this “trust me” nonsense. In my humble opinion, “trust me” should never be used in an online commenting community; as a retired as a psychologist you might want to consider the attitude behind its usage.

                      I’ve said my peace; I’m done with that now.

                  • He’s never claimed to be anything other than a clinical psychologist in all the years he’s been commenting on this blog. I’m not a psychologist, as my B.A. in psychology is only an introduction to the field, but I can say that if he isn’t a Psy.D. or Ph.D., he’s set up a very elaborate ruse.

                    • joed68 said, “He’s never claimed to be anything other than a clinical psychologist in all the years he’s been commenting on this blog.”

                      That’s really only partially relevant as many people would not know that. Personally, I don’t care one bit if he has a Psy.D. or Ph.D. or he’s set up a very elaborate ruse, it’s irrelevant to me, the phrase raises red flags whenever it’s used regardless of the source; period.

                • Oops bad wording/grammar; “…their dangerously to society due to their mental illness.” should be “…they’re a danger to society due to their mental illness.”

                  That’s what I get for proof reading, editing and then not proof reading again.

        • Thanks for the link tex, I never saw that post or knew that happened.

          Yet another thing to add to the ever growing stink piles of reasons why I can’t vote for either Clinton or Trump.

  4. This seems like the proper action, even though emotionally it doesn’t seem right. I would draw two contrasts, though.

    Not everyone convicted of a crime is eventually released. Charles Manson has been denied parole 12 times and is not scheduled for another hearing until 2027, when he’ll be 92. That also seems proper (and just).

    On the other hand, there are some programs — I think the most notorious I am aware of was in either Minnesota or Wisconsin — where people convicted of sexual offenses are _not_ being released even after they have served their full sentence. As far as I can see, they are essentially detained without charges. That seems outrageous to me and a constitutional violation.

  5. I don’t think many people have a concept of how long a period of confinement 35 years really is. That is, for all intents and purposes, a life sentence. Also, from what I understand, mental health wards for the criminally insane aren’t exactly country clubs.

    • Once has to take a patient to Rusk State Hospital in, of all places, Rusk, Texas. It was once a Confederate military base. A guard, whom I will call ‘Tiny’ (you get to guess why) came by as I was waiting for the escorting staff to check this patient in (Rusk has a unit for court commitments for the criminally insane) and told me I could have a seat on a bench over next to a wall. I elected to remain standing, should I be able to contribute to the check in procedure. The same guard came by again a few minutes later, and said “I thought I told you to sit down!” I hastily explained who I was, and did everything necessary to preserve my life.

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