On March 30th, 1981, the Oscars award ceremony was postponed to the following night for only the third time in its entire history.
Why is this relevant to a law blog?
Because John Hinckley Jr., who shot at President Reagan in an attempt to get the attention of actress Jodie Foster. He used a temporary insanity defense for shooting the then president and never went to jail.
The John Hinckley Jr. Case
You may remember these events, if you’re old enough, or know that President Reagan was shot but not know why. Here’s the story.
Hinckley had been born to an affluent family, had moved to Hollywood in 1976, and had seen Martin Scorcese’s film “Taxi Driver.” He subsequently became obsessed with the main character of the film – Travis Bickle – and began dressing and acting like him. Travis Bickle is based on a man named Arthur Bremer, who shot the Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. Bremer felt he could be famous and powerful if he did this.
Fixating on Jodie Foster (who plays a young prostitute in the film), obviously, Hinckley felt he could do the same.
There was a precedent for using an insanity defense. Hinckley had been caught stalking President Jimmy Carter a number of times. In addition, he had moved to New Haven, Connecticut when he’d found out Jodie Foster was attending Yale University. But his case stirred up controversy and here’s why.
Irresistible Impulse Defense
The irresistible impulse defense comes out of two other insanity defenses that have been used for a long time.
The first one, called “The M’Naughten Rule” is based on a notorious English case involving an assassin in the early 1800s. A defendant is considered or can be argued to be legally insane if the judge or jury finds that he or she could not distinguish between right and wrong with regard to the crime he or she committed.
In 1887, the Alabama Supreme Court expanded the definition of insanity to include an inability to control one’s impulses. Under such a definition, it could be argued that even if a defendant knows right from wrong and knew right from wrong in that situation. Furthermore, they had such a mental disease that kept them from being able to choose the right thing.
The crime, in this argument, is the product of the disease and not the person doing the crime.
The criticism of the rule might be obvious. How can it be determined whether an action was “uncontrollable” or merely “uncontrolled?”
If this defense was allowed, it could be argued that any moment of weakness was a temporary mental illness and then no one could be held accountable for their actions at all.
After Hinckley’s trial, the instances of using an insanity defense are very few.
To be fair, John Hinckley Jr. did exhibit the proofs which would be needed for a successful insanity defense:
- The existence of mental illness (exhibited by his stalking and extreme mimicking behavior).
- That the mental illness caused the inability to control his actions or conform to the law (Hinckley’s defense showed the film “Taxi Driver” in the conclusion of his case).
In conclusion, John Hinckley Jr. has spent the rest of his days in St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington, D.C. His case limited how the insanity defense can be used. It led to the Brady Bill, which requires a waiting period and background check for people purchasing handguns.
What do you think? Is the irresistible impulse defense a needed check on our justice system putting mentally ill people in jail?