The impending release of John Warnock Hinckley Jr., the University Park product who shot President Reagan in 1981, has got me thinking in a little bit different direction.
Most of the writing I’m seeing on Hinckley’s release is about the insanity defense used successfully by Hinckley’s lawyers to get him acquitted and sent to a mental hospital instead of prison. After Hinckley’s acquittal, many states stiffened the rules for using insanity as the basis for a plea of innocence, and a handful of states eliminated it entirely.
But what about us, the society? Can we plead social insanity? No, I’m serious. Look, I’ll show you.
The insanity plea has changed over the years. From an earlier recognition in common law that some people are “mad” and just don’t have any idea what they’re doing, the insanity defense has moved toward a recognition that some behavior can be entirely the product of mental illness, whether a person thinks he knows what he’s doing or not.
But especially under the newer tighter rules, a defendant can be found to be pretty crazy but still sane enough to know what he or she is doing, therefore not innocent by reason of insanity. The prosecutorial argument would be that the defendant is nuts but not nuts enough to get away with it.
The stories inspired by Hinckley’s release, slated for next week from a mental hospital, all seem to agree that the newer definitions of innocence by reason of insanity have served to make it much harder for people to get off that way.
My own experience as a reporter has been that murder trials are never as logical or as legal as people might suppose from watching TV and movies. Trials on TV are always way smarter than the real ones. I covered a murder trial where the real defense, if you broke it down, was that she didn’t do it, plus she was nuts, plus it was self-defense.
I covered a trial in Alabama of a prominent doctor’s wife who was white. The prosecution’s argument was that even if she didn’t do the murder she did have a black boyfriend.
The prosecution won.
In other words, in practice and in real trials, the rules are a lot less rigid than you might conclude just from reading the law. Imagine, then, that someone should accuse our entire society of causing innocent people to be slaughtered by gun-wielding madmen.
I am wondering if it might not be possible for the whole society to plead innocence by reason of insanity. If I were a lawyer arguing that case, here is how my argument would proceed:
We know that there are crazy people. We know that there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. Maybe we’ve made some progress in dealing with mental illness, in that we don’t drown them or set them on fire any more, but any improvement we have achieved has been only by degree.
We still refuse to pay what it would cost to provide comprehensive services to people suffering from mental illness. If they’re like Hinckley and come from wealthy families, then they’re lucky, but even rich crazy people's luck won’t click in until after they’ve already done something so heinous that their civil liberties have been suspended.
For the most part, we know they’re out there roaming the streets, sleeping on loading docks and cadging food from missions and garbage cans. Maybe they are taking their anti-psychotic drugs, maybe not, who knows?
Meanwhile, we believe that it is extremely important – a core principal and goal of our society – for every person in the society including people who are demonstrably nuts to be able to get assault rifles if they really want them. People shouldn’t steal assault rifles, of course, but if they have the price, then sure, they should be able to get their hands on an assault rifle, nuts or not.
We realize, because we’re not idiots, that this means a certain number of crazy people will get their hands on assault rifles and on all kinds of other weaponry and ammo and body armor. And we can probably do the math by now on what happens when a deeply disturbed individual with obsessive fantasies about gun slaughter gets his hands on a bunch of guns. Gun slaughter.
Orlando. Dallas. Baton Rouge. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. The Beltway sniper. Tucson/Gabrielle Giffords. I will stop there.
We have arguments and fantasies in our own heads as a society about why it is important for everybody, including people diagnosed or diagnosable with mental illness, to get their hands on a bunch of guns and ammo. Some of our fantasies, for example, have to do with armies of federal agents surrounding us and forcing us at gunpoint to bake wedding cakes for gay couples. In our fantasies we defeat the federal agents with our assault rifles, and nary a cake is baked, by God.
In other fantasies, our homes are besieged by marauding mobs of criminals. Even if that one is not quite as far out there as the forced gay baking, it’s still pretty out there.
But as the attorney arguing that society is innocent by reason of insanity, I am going to be magnanimous (which I hope the jury will notice) and extend a certain something or other, I think it’s called a stipulation, to the effect that, yes, theoretically, our homes could be surrounded by marauding bands of criminals bent on rape and pillage, and we might have to defend ourselves with our assault rifles like those stalwarts at the Alamo did so many years ago. And we forget how that movie ended.
So far, I think the society I have described still knows what it is doing. It can distinguish right from wrong. It wouldn’t qualify under the older common law definitions of madness. But I’m not done.
Under the more modern definitions, we can skate if we can just prove that our behavior is entirely the product of mental illness. For that, we must examine our overall ability to correctly perceive reality.
If everyone can have an assault rifle, including severely mentally ill people, how likely is it that mentally ill people with guns and ammo will slaughter cops in the street, murder children in school, annihilate families in movie theaters, all of it in an almost perfectly reproduced and choreographed ritual of costume and equipment that the killers have seen on TV or in the movies?
We know this one, do we not? It’s not just likely. It’s an absolute certainty. It’s not that it might happen. It must happen. If the crazy people have guns, then they will continue to gun-slaughter the children, the cops, the young people in bars and the families in movie theaters. We know that.
Now for the other half of the equation: when was the last time your house was surrounded either by marauding criminals intent on rape and pillage or by federal agents determined to make you bake a cake for a gay person?
I have had this very conversation with a number of people I know in recent months, and you know what they did? They started telling me about stuff they had seen on TV or in the movies.
Uh-oh. Cue the scary music. I asked them about their own homes, their own reality, and they started telling me about stuff they had seen in the movies. We all know that’s how Hinckley started, right? With “Taxi Driver.”
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So what’s the big difference between Hinckley and the rest of society? I am confident that even under the newer tighter rules for an insanity plea, I could mount a successful defense for our society.
I would inundate the jury with evidence of widespread aberrant narcissistic ideation and fearfulness driven by TV and movies, causing large numbers of people to replace their perception of reality with paranoid fantasies centered on gun obsession.
Oh, shoot. I see what’s wrong here. OK, forget the whole deal. I didn’t think of that. Damn. My problem will be that the jury will be nuts, too.
Change of venue to Norway? No? Not far enough? Wow. It’s getting harder and harder to get away from this stuff, isn’t it? I think I’ll just concentrate on my own plea. You figure yours out.