The case against John Hinckley's latest request

April 18, 2000|By Richard E. Vatz and Lee S. Weinberg

THE NEWS on John Hinckley Jr. is troubling. Officials at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington have recommended that Mr. Hinckley be released for unsupervised visits with his parents. The last such recommendation was turned down in 1997.

Mr. Hinckley has been held for 19 years following a jury's finding of not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting of President Ronald Reagan and others. Mr. Hinckley's efforts at conditional release are only the latest in a strange history of his attempts to gain freedom. In 1987, hospital officials at St. Elizabeths recommended that Mr. Hinckley be permitted visits to his parents. Just one year earlier, psychiatrists recommended against such visits for these reasons:

Mr. Hinckley solicited a friend in 1982 to acquire a .38 special in order to plan an escape.

In 1986, Mr. Hinckley sought the address of Charles Manson and corresponded with mass murderer Ted Bundy. He also initiated a romantic relationship with a woman who killed her children.

Mr. Hinckley was permitted to leave St. Elizabeths once in 1986 for a visit to his parents. Since then, Mr. Hinckley or St. Elizabeths has requested six leaves, all of which have been denied, the Washington Post reports, "after evidence indicated that Hinckley had not made the progress he said he had."

Legal and ethical criteria should be considered regarding these unsupervised leaves. The central legal issue revolves around the prediction of whether or not Hinckley is dangerous.

These kinds of determinations are not unique to Mr. Hinckley's case. The insanity plea is successful in only one-quarter of 1 percent of the time in criminal cases, but that translates into thousands of cases. In a mid-1980s study of recidivism of not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity cases, researchers found more than three-quarters of the people released after confinement were arrested many more times, usually for minor offenses.

A verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity represents a legal conclusion that defendants were not responsible for their actions and should not, therefore, be punished. Defendants are not released; rather, they are confined in mental hospitals. Defendants are released only when psychiatrists and a court agree they may be safely released.

Yet even within the psychiatric profession there has been a long-running debate about whether psychiatrists can predict who will be dangerous upon release. A well-publicized 1988 article in Science magazine concluded that "clinicians are wrong [on predicting violence] at least twice as often as they are correct."

Methodological criticisms of that study subsequently showed that psychiatrists might do a bit better than chance, but their success rate still fails to inspires much confidence when the consequences of being wrong could be so serious.

The American Psychiatric Association's 1983 statement following Hinckley's attempt to assassinate President Reagan clearly states that "psychiatrists have no special knowledge or ability with which to predict dangerous behavior." Seventeen years later, the APA Web page states that there is "an absence of an official position" on the issue. How much risk should the public be asked to accept in view of the low confidence level we have in psychiatric predictions of dangerousness? How does a judge assess the profound effects of the attempted assassination on its victims and their families, as well as Jodie Foster, whom Mr. Hinckley sought to impress? Maureen Reagan said last year that she was "irate" at the prospect of Mr. Hinckley leaving St. Elizabeths.

Mr. Hinckley's psychiatrists maintain that he is in remission and shows no signs of psychiatric illness. Should he become violent, one assumes that these psychiatrists would say simply that he was no longer in remission.

As to Mr. Hinckley's apparent new self-control, Raymond F. Patterson, a psychiatrist who testified the last time Mr. Hinckley petitioned for conditional release, states that Mr. Hinckley is quite capable of hiding his aggressive tendencies.

Given the additional pain which Mr. Hinckley's release would bring to so many people and the serious risk of harm to which society will be subjected should the psychiatrists at St. Elizabeths turn out to be wrong, we can only hope that John Hinckley will again be denied his request for unsupervised passes.

Richard E. Vatz is a professor of communications at Towson University, and Lee S. Weinberg is associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh. They are also associate psychology editors of USA Today Magazine.

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