Court psychiatrist leaves legacy to field

June 29, 1992|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

Had Jonas Rappeport been called to the witness stand, his legions of admirers are fond of saying, John Hinckley Jr. would be sitting in a prison cell today rather than a hospital ward.

The thinking goes that the jurors would have found this slight, owlish-looking psychiatrist irresistible. They would have perceived him as being so commonsensical, so agreeable, so reasonable, that they could do nothing but side with him, rule that Mr. Hinckley was sane when he shot Ronald Reagan and send the would-be presidential assassin to a long, long stay in a penitentiary.

But the prosecution never played the Rappeport card, Mr. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and across the nation there sounded an angry protest to sweep away the insanity defense.

Not testifying in that trial was perhaps the biggest disappointment in a celebrated 40-year career in forensic psychiatry that begins to wind down today when Dr. Rappeport, 67, retires as the chief medical officer of the Baltimore Circuit Court. In that time, he has evaluated tens of thousands of criminal defendants and testified in countless cases in Maryland and across the nation.

Dr. Rappeport's most sweeping contributions undoubtedly occurred outside the courtroom. In the face of the clamor following the Hinckley verdict, he championed the preservation of the insanity defense, calling it a litmus test of society's humanity. More quietly, during the span of his long career, he perhaps more than anyone else yanked his profession -- forensic psychiatry -- from the stature of judicial sideshow to that of accepted medical specialty.

Dr. James Cavanaugh, a colleague at Rush Medical College in Chicago, calls Dr. Rappeport "the father of modern forensic psychiatry."

But last week, in his office in the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse, Dr. Rappeport was recalling the day he didn't get to the witness stand.

As part of the Hinckley prosecution team, Dr. Rappeport spent more than a year preparing for his courtroom appearance. He conducted nearly 20 hours of interviews with Mr. Hinckley. He flew to Colorado to meet with Mr. Hinckley's family. He visited the shop where Mr. Hinckley had purchased the gun and spoke to the Washington policeman who had seen Mr. Hinckley drive by shortly before his assassination attempt.

As the trial neared, he memorized his data, prepared his documentation, rehearsed his testimony and anticipated the cross-examination.

Then, on the eve of his appearance, the phone rang. It was the prosecutor, Roger Adelman. He had decided not to call Dr. Rappeport to the stand.

"He said that he thought we had presented enough psychiatric testimony," Dr. Rappeport recalled. "He thought that the jury was tired, and he didn't want to overwhelm them."

Dr. Rappeport also knew that his assessment of Mr. Hinckley was more equivocal than some of the other members of the psychiatric team. Although he felt Mr. Hinckley knew the difference between right and wrong and was in control of himself -- the twin tests of legal sanity -- he would have testified that Mr. Hinckley "was quite sick with severe personality disorders."

The prosecution may have felt that his testimony would have muddied the waters too much. Those familiar with Dr. Rappeport say that decision may have been a fatal underappreciation of his skills as a witness.

"I don't know what the strategy was in that case," said George Lipman, chief of the Maryland Public Defender's Mental Health Division, "but there's never been a time when I had Jonas on my side that I didn't put him on the stand."

Dr. Rappeport makes no claims about the effect his testimony might have had. "I was terribly depressed about it," he said. "Would I have made the difference? I won't be so grandiose to say that I would have. But I believe I have a way of communicating that is down-to-earth, that is not condescending, that is not haughty. I try to make sense."

*

Dr. Rappeport sits at a conference table in his cluttered office surrounded by four psychiatrists who want to follow him into forensic psychiatry. He is a small man with square, large-framed glasses that dominate his oval face and an unexpectedly booming voice to which the others are paying strict attention. But today he is not lecturing, only prodding them with questions.

The topic is a favorite one in forensic psychiatry: should a defendant charged with murder be allowed to go off medication when those drugs are all that would keep him or her competent to stand trial?

It is a fascinating question with several corollaries. What is a doctor's responsibility to a patient? Should a doctor ever knowingly contribute to a patient's suffering? Should a doctor knowingly help a patient avoid prosecution?

Today he allows his students to wrestle with the question for several moments before revealing his hand. "I have a hard time letting this man stop taking his medication just so he can avoid trial," he said.

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