WASHINGTON — This week’s death of former White House press secretary James Brady, who survived a gunshot wound to the head in an assassination attempt on President Reagan, has been ruled a homicide, District of Columbia police said Friday.
Officials said the ruling was made by the medical examiner in Northern Virginia, where Brady, 73, died at home Monday.
The ruling could allow prosecutors in Washington, D.C., where Reagan and Brady were shot on March 30, 1981, by John Hinckley Jr., to reopen the case and charge Hinckley with murder.
Hinckley was found not guilty in 1982 by reason of insanity on charges ranging from attempted assassination of the president to possession of an unlicensed pistol. The verdict was met with such outrage that many states and the federal government altered laws to make it harder to use the insanity defense. Hinckley, now 59, has been a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., since the trial.
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There is no statute of limitations on murder charges, but any attempt to retry Hinckley would be a challenge for prosecutors, in part because he was ruled insane, said Hugh Keefe, a Connecticut defense lawyer who taught trial advocacy at Yale University. “They’re dead in the water,” Keefe said. “That’s the end of that case because we have double jeopardy.”
But George Terwilliger III, who was the assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., when he wrote the search warrant for Hinckley’s hotel room, said there might be grounds for a new trial. “Generally, a new homicide charge would be adjudicated on its merits without reference to a prior case,” said Terwilliger, who became a deputy attorney general under the elder President George Bush and is now in private practice. “The real challenge here would be to prove causation for the death.”
Hinckley’s lawyer, Barry Levine, acknowledged new charges were possible, but he said the possibility was “far-fetched in the extreme.”
Federal prosecutors are reviewing the ruling.
Officials at St. Elizabeths Hospital have said that the mental illness that led Hinckley to shoot Reagan in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster has been in remission for decades. Hinckley has been allowed to leave the hospital to visit his mother’s home in Williamsburg, Va., and can spend more than half of his time outside the hospital on such visits.
Levine doesn’t expect the homicide ruling to affect Hinckley continuing to be allowed to continue the visits. “The court has found he has regained his mental health,” Levine said.
Brady lived through hours of delicate surgery and further operations during the past 33 years but never regained normal use of his limbs and was often in a wheelchair.
An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be a gunshot wound and its health consequences, and the manner of death was ruled a homicide, according to the news release from D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump.
Besides partial paralysis from brain damage, Brady suffered short-term memory impairment, slurred speech and constant pain.
The medical examiner’s office would not comment on the cause and manner of Brady death.
Reagan, a Secret Service agent and a D.C. police officer were wounded in the shooting, but Brady was the most seriously injured.
After the shooting, Brady and his wife, Sarah, become a leading advocates for gun control and pushed legislation requiring background checks. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law, which required background checks and waiting periods for prospective handgun purchases.
“Twelve years ago, my life was changed forever by a disturbed young man with a gun,” Brady said from his wheelchair at the bill signing. “Until that time, I hadn’t thought much about gun control or the need for gun control. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have been stuck with these damn wheels.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.