The death this week of former White House press secretary James Brady from complications stemming from a 1981 assassination attempt on his boss, President Ronald Reagan, has been ruled a homicide.
Federal prosecutors reviewing the matter have given no indication of whether the finding means John Hinckley Jr., who shot Brady and Reagan, could face new charges. Brady, 73, died Aug. 4 at a retirement residence in Alexandria, Virginia, due to health issues related to his wounds.
Hinckley, 59, shot Brady, Reagan and two others outside the Washington Hilton hotel on March 30, 1981. Brady sustained a head wound that almost killed him, and used a wheelchair after the shooting. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Virginia’s medical examiner ruled Brady’s death a homicide, prompting Washington police to investigate the case as such, Gwendolyn Crump, a D.C. police spokeswoman, said today. The medical examiner’s office referred calls to Washington police.
Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, said prosecutors were reviewing the ruling and declined to comment further.
Hinckley’s lawyer, Barry Wm. Levine, said prosecutors shouldn’t charge his client with homicide.
“It’s not very complicated,” Levine said. “The act was prosecuted and he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The only difference between what was charged then and this conclusion is that Mr. Brady died.”
It is not uncommon for the deaths of those injured in shootings to be ruled homicides years later if a medical examiner determines the death was related to the gunshot wounds.
As they left the Washington Hilton hotel where Reagan had given a speech, the president, Brady, Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy were wounded when Hinckley opened fire. Reagan and Brady were the most seriously hurt.
Reagan returned to office and won re-election in 1984. After leaving office in 1989, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia. The 40th president died in 2004.
Brady never fully recovered from the shooting, which left him partially paralyzed and suffering from serious health problems for the remainder of his life.
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on all 13 charges filed against him, including federal counts of attempted assassination of the president, assault on a federal officer, and use of a firearm in the commission of a federal offense. He was also found not guilty by reason of insanity of the local charges of attempted murder and assault.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which acts as the local prosecutor in Washington, will weigh legal and factual questions about whether it can take Hinckley to trial, said Thomas Zeno, a former federal prosecutor. A murder charge against Hinckley is possible.
“There is no question the U.S. attorney will take a serious look at this,” Zeno said.
Zeno, now a defense attorney with Squire Patton Boggs in Washington, spent two decades battling Hinckley’s efforts to win more privileges from Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where he has been held since the jury verdict. Last year, a federal judge granted Hinckley more freedom, boosting the number of days he can visit his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia, to 17 a month from 10.
“There is probably a basis to charge him,” said Zeno, who retired from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2011. ‘Prosecutors will have to ask questions: How good is the evidence? There are practical issues and legal issues to resolve. And above all, is this the right thing to do? It may very well be the right thing to do, but can they factually do it, can they legally do it and should they do it? Those are serious questions.’’