Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The John Hinckley Case

Verdict and Uproar

After eight anguishing weeks of complex testimony, the fate of John Hinckley Jr. was in the hands of the jury. During the days they were out, Jack composed a press release to be read when the guilty verdict that he and others believed inevitable came in. It began, "Obviously, we are terribly disappointed by the guilty verdict for our troubled son, John, whom we love very much."

Then word came that the jury had reached a verdict. The jury's foreman handed the written verdict to Judge Parker. The jurist looked through it, a characteristically serious expression on his face. "The Court will read the verdict as tendered by the jury foreman," Parker said. "As to Count 1, Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. As to Count 2, Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, As to Count 3, Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity." And on he went through all 13 counts.

A wave of shock rippled through the courtroom. Even the defense attorneys had not expected victory. Jack Hinckley was to recall that "my head felt light." Jo Ann let out a cry and she burst into tears as her husband hugged her.

Then the jury was individually polled to see if that was the verdict of each. Yes, each replied to every count.

Judge Parker said, "The date of further proceedings in this matter, including sentencing, will be set for July 12 at 10:00 a.m." Then the judge caught himself and shook his head. There would be no sentencing in this case although there would certainly be confinement in a mental hospital. "The defendant shall be remanded immediately," he said.

Attorney General William French Smith (AP)
Attorney General William
French Smith (AP)

Suddenly the court exploded as reporters ran to the doors and astonished people began talking over each other. That was just the beginning of the uproar that would follow this verdict. Commentators competed to denounce it. James J. Kilpatrick called it a "travesty of justice." Joseph Kraft thought it "did violence to common sense." High-ranking members of the Reagan administration Attorney General William French Smith and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan went on talk shows to vent their outrage at the verdict.

Treasury Secretary Donald Regan (AP)
Treasury Secretary
Donald Regan (AP)

The jurors, people who had looked past class and race to do their duty as citizens, were the targets of extraordinary criticism. As Caplan aptly noted, "In the days after the verdict of acquittal, the jurors might have felt like Vietnam veterans, returning to a country that expressed a contempt for its soldiers instead of fury over a long war."

Jury deliberations had been careful, thoroughgoing, and tense. The first order of business when the door to the jury room slammed shut, however, was the mundane one of choosing a foreperson. Each juror threw his or her name into the hat of retired janitor Roy Jackson, 64. Since it was his hat, he did the drawing and pulled out his own name.

Some immediately thought he was not guilty by reason of insanity, others that he was definitely guilty. "So we took out the evidence," said secretary Belinda Drake, 23, "and put our personal feelings aside."

Some jurors felt the suicidal tendencies in his letter to Foster indicated insanity. Others felt his attempts to get money from his parents showed he was sane. They differed on how to interpret his relentless trip taking. Janitor Glynis Lassiter argued, "Nobody, no matter how much money he has would spend it like that. He pays a jet fare and stays a day. I can't see that." But school cafeteria worker Maryland Copelin said, "Anytime you can buy airplane tickets and go anywhere you want and get the money to do it, you're sane."

Although forbidden to discuss the case, even with each other, when they weren't in session, they could not stop thinking about it. Ruggedly built Lawrence Coffey lost sleep over it. He remembered lying in bed and compulsively scrutinizing the evidence. "I lay there thinking about his letters to Jodie and to his parents," Coffey said.. "I felt sure he wasn't in his right mind when he shot those people."

In the middle of their deliberations, the jury changed forepersons. Jackson had a pronounced stutter and some of the others felt he was not comfortable with the amount of speaking that being foreperson required.

Lawrence Coffey, 22, became foreperson. The group debated more about the defendant's peculiar mental state. At last, they all voted not guilty by reason of insanity.

When the media descended on the jurors, Coffey explained their verdict by saying, "The prosecutor's evidence was not strong enough." Juror George Blyther commented, "We had to give a judgment back the way it was given to us. The evidence being what it was, we were required to send John back insane."

Two jurors made an attempt to distance themselves from the verdict. Nathalia Brown and Maryland Copelin told a press conference that they had been pressured into changing their votes. Complained Brown, "I felt I was on the brink of insanity myself going through this."

A few commentators pointed out that, since the burden had been on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that John Hinckley, Jr. was sane, they had come to the only legally appropriate decision. Proving that a man who believes he will win the esteem of one stranger by killing another is mentally responsible is no mean task.

Indeed, some wryly remarked that proving many people sane would be difficult. A recovered President Reagan made this point. "If you start thinking about a lot of your friends," he commented, "you would have to say, 'Gee, if I had to prove they were sane, I would have a hard job.'"

As a result of public distaste for the verdict, much of the law on the insanity defense was re-written. Many states narrowed the defense and some shifted the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense, making Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity an "affirmative" defense. Some narrowed the range of testimony psychiatric experts could give. Twelve states started a possible verdict of "guilty but mentally ill" but still retained the possible verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Montana, Idaho and Utah have abolished the insanity defense.

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