Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The John Hinckley Case

Looking in a Brain

Dr. David Bear, a psychiatrist testifying for the defense, had little experience in courtrooms. Perhaps that is why he seemed rather nervous. However, he was a top-notch doctor who had graduated first in his Harvard class of 1965 and his testimony was that of a most knowledgeable physician. He believed that John had been psychotic on March 30.

Both schizophrenia and clinical depression were present in the defendant, according to Dr. Bear. After being brushed off by Foster, Dr. Bear said, the accused had decided he must "rescue" her because she was "a prisoner at Yale."

"Every single time a psychiatrist sees thinking like that," he testified, "every time, not as a matter of opinion, as a matter of fact, that is psychosis."

The psychiatrist discussed at length the film Taxi Driver and the defendant's peculiar reactions to it and extreme identification with its mentally sick and homicidal protagonist. At one point, the issue arose of whether John, who had in some instances manipulated his parents into giving him money, could have been faking mental illness. Dr. Bear believed that highly unlikely because fakers usually report dramatic things like hearing voices or seeing visions. John denied having hallucinations. His symptoms were things like a lack of appropriate emotional response.

One piece of evidence that the defense tried to introduce through Dr. Bear was a CAT-scan that had been taken of John W. Hinckley Jr.'s brain. Lawyers for both sides said it had never before been admitted as evidence in an American courtroom and the judge dismissed the jury from the room before hearing arguments about its relevancy. Would Judge Parker make precedent by allowing this jury to see it?

CAT-scan of a person's brain
CAT-scan of a person's brain

There has for some time been a consensus among mental health experts that, like bipolar disorder (formerly "manic depression"), many if not most cases of schizophrenia have a biological basis. Proving that John's brain differed from that of normal people would be vital in establishing his illness, the defense believed. It was also something he could not be accused of faking as well as something the jury could actually see with their own eyes.

Speaking of the CAT-scan, Dr. Bear said, "As an instrument for viewing the brain, I think it is absolutely unquestioned. It is considered the greatest diagnostic advance perhaps in the last fifty years."

What exactly would it show about the defendant's brain? He had widened "sulci," the medical term for folds and ridges on the surface of the brain. Widened sulci are far more common in schizophrenics than normal people. "In one study from St. Elizabeths Hospital," Dr. Bear claimed, "one-third of the schizophrenics had widened sulci. . . . whereas in normals, probably less than one out of fifty have them."

The prosecution claimed that it had not been proven that the CAT-scan aided in a diagnosis of schizophrenia and thus, such evidence should not be presented to the jury.

After listening to the initial arguments about the CAT-scan, Judge Parker ruled that he would not admit it. Nine days later, he heard more expert testimony about this diagnostic tool and again ruled it out of bounds. Then he changed his mind and said the defense could show the CAT-scan.

When finally presented after so much intense legal wrangling, the CAT-scan photographs seemed anticlimactic. Slides of the defendant's brain were displayed on a small screen. Caplan wrote that the scans "looked like slices of bruised and misshapen fruit." A self-conscious radiologist, clearly unaccustomed to public speaking, pointed out in a shrill voice certain "abnormal" areas but few in the courtroom seemed terribly impressed.

Psychologist Ernst Prelinger and psychiatrist Thomas Goldman both took the witness stand for the defense, shoring up the claim that John was insane.

Disputing that claim was psychiatrist Dr. Sally Johnson, who had interviewed him longer than any other doctor. The 29-year-old wore her brown hair up in a bun and smiled easily as she confidently testified to disorders that she believed fell short of legal insanity. Becoming a public figure was a primary motive for John, Dr. Johnson believed.

John waved to her as she began testifying. He requested that his attorneys ask her if she "liked" the defendant. He started glowering at her as she gave testimony that was meant to be damning.

The defense requested that the movie Taxi Driver be shown to the jury. It was.

In summing up for the government, Adelman emphasized the defendant's stalking of two presidents, his target practice, and his choice of the especially deadly Devastator bullets. He reminded the jury that, "at 1:45 when Mr. Reagan arrived, Mr. Hinckley is standing there. . . . And he doesn't shoot then. He waited for the best shot." The accused was not "out of control or in a frenzy" or he couldn't have waited for the best opportunity to shoot.

He claimed that the defense had failed to adequately address the issue of whether John's "ability to appreciate wrongfulness or conform his behavior to the requirement of the law was substantially impaired. . . . All these doctor's CAT scans, delusions, fantasies, and everything else. Miles away from the question."

Adelman was clearly offended by Dr. Carpenter's having called his victims "bit players" in the defendant's mind. "That's an outrageous thought," Adelman said, his voice rising, "that the President of the United States and a man shot in the brain are 'bit players.'"

Vincent Fuller gave the closing statement for the defense. In a tone of sadness, he acknowledged that his client had perpetrated "the tragic shooting of four innocent victims." He emphasized the isolated nature of the defendant's life. "He lives in a world where the only reality is that which he makes for himself," Fuller told the jury. John was not "exposed to the checks and balances we all need in our everyday lives, to know that we are making sense in our activities."

Of John's motive, Fuller said, "I suggest the ideation . . . that by stalking the president of the United States, he could in some way establish a relationship with the young woman, is bizarre.

"I submit to you that it is a result of a serious mental illness in which the defendant's relation to reality in the true meaningful sense has been severed . . . "

Contrary to the prosecutor's assertion, John was in a "frenzy," an "internal frenzy . . that is going on in this man's inner world, all built upon false premises, false assumptions, false ideas."

Fuller repeated that the victims were "bit players in the mind of the defendant" not to "any of us here." The characterization was of how they appeared in John's "delusional state." At the end of his summation, Fuller said that John's delusions had "reached psychotic proportions" by March 1980 and said that "the Government has failed in its burden of proving that this defendant was mentally responsible" for his conduct on March 30.

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