General Question

elbanditoroso's avatar

Does it make sense to call James Brady's death a homicide 33 years after he was shot?

Asked by elbanditoroso (22237points) August 8th, 2014

You may remember that in 1981, then-President Reagan was shot, along with James Brady, by Charles Hinckley. Reagan recovered, while Brady had all sorts of injuries, never recovered his full mental faculties, and was unable to walk the rest of his life.

Brady died earlier this week.

The police in Alexandria VA are calling this a homicide because (they say) his death was related to the gunshot wound. Does that make sense? It seems to me that an interval of 33 years stretches the cause / effect necessary to consider this homicide. Brady died, presumably of old age, after having lived a generation after the incident.

(not that I have any sympathy for Hinckley – he can rot in jail for all I care. But this just seems like a stretch to me.)

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46 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

No, it does not.

Blondesjon's avatar

It sets a shitty precedent.

canidmajor's avatar

It seems a bit extreme, yes, but in this day and age 73 is not considered “old age”, and there may have been health issues sustained because of the shooting that contributed to his earlier-than-normal demise.
I can’t find more information from the medical examiner, can someone direct me to a relevant kink, please?

dappled_leaves's avatar

@canidmajor I think it’s too early for details to have been reported. All we’ll have for a few days is hyperbolic headlines and shrill, speculative opinion pieces.

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

I need more information.

Homicide isn’t always instant; people can linger, for very long periods of time, in the wake of violence. Seventy-three really isn’t very old these days, and James Brady suffered severe mental and physical damage. His health was so compromised, it might have caused an early death.

Nobody gets to say anything bad about Alexandria. I live here!

canidmajor's avatar

Yeah, @dappled_leaves, I kinda got that, I just wanted to say that because so many immediately make absolute statements so quickly. :-)

kritiper's avatar

No. Lots of people get shot and live a long, natural life.

zenvelo's avatar

I just came over to ask the same question. GQ for you.

I think it’s a little extreme to say there is cause and effect over 33 years. And as a legal precedent, if you injure someone when they are young, you are tried and convicted, and the victim has life long injuries, when the victim dies can you say they would not have died so early if not for the injury?

dappled_leaves's avatar

@canidmajor Oh, I totally agree.

ragingloli's avatar

This could very well result in the general replacement of battery charges by homicide, by simply assuming, based on this precedence, that an assault will ultimately, invariably, lead to death.
People will then preemptively be convicted of murder/manslaughter.
The private prison industry will love this.

canidmajor's avatar

Without information about the nature of the long-term damage, it’s too early to come back with an answer. What’s the cut-off time? If a person is hit by a pipe in the head during a mugging, and is in a coma then dies, when does it become a not-homicide? (Providing that the death is a result of the original injury). 1 year? 6 years? 27 years?

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

@kritiper “Lots of people get shot and live a long, natural life.”

True. Yet, very few people survive a shot to the head. Although Mr. Brady lived, he was left with slurred speech and widespread paralysis that required the full-time use of a wheelchair. Those were the superficial effects; Mr. Brady and his family kept the full extent of his injuries private. He suffered extensive brain damage. Without more information about the long-term, physical outcomes of his brain injury, it’s too early to reach a conclusion.

Again, more details are needed.

SQUEEKY2's avatar

I think this sets a scary precedent like @Blondesjon said, can we in the future blame injurys from problems we recieved in the past?

elbanditoroso's avatar

@canidmajor , I don’t know what the number of years should be. But 33 seems to be on the long end.

Suppose that Brady had lived to be 95 years old – that’s way above the average expectancy in the US. Would that still be murder?

canidmajor's avatar

@elbanditoroso : But he didn’t. Which was part of my original point.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

I would like to see the prosecution prove that beyond all reasonable doubt.

jerv's avatar

It does, but only because it makes about as much sense as pretty much the rest of the political and legal world in recent years. If it didn’t makes sense, I would have to admit that our society has gone completely off the rails and that nothing makes sense any more.

anniereborn's avatar

John Hinckley Jr. was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He is a mental patient at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington.
If he was further charged, what is going to change for him anyway?

Darth_Algar's avatar

I suppose, technically, since Hinckley was never charged with murder, and thus never tried for murder, then he could be tried since there’s no statute of limitations on murder and double jeopardy wouldn’t apply. However, just because the police and ME say it’s murder doesn’t mean that the state is going to try the case. And I cannot see any prosecutor willing to try this case after 33 years and a court trial and verdict already rendered in this case.

Also this would set a scary precedent. If, say, a boxer suffers Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy from blows sustained to the head during his career and his life is cut short because of it (which is often the case) can the men he fought in the ring them be charged with murder? Or maybe manslaughter, as the man willingly chose to box?

SavoirFaire's avatar

I agree with those who want more information. It’s important to note, however, that it was a medical examiner who declared the cause of Brady’s death to be homicide. It was not a prosecutor, it was not the police, and no charges have been filed (though the declaration has automatically triggered a police investigation—as is required for every death that is determined to be a case of homicide).

So while federal prosecutors are currently reviewing the case to see whether or not it is worth pursuing charges, I suspect it will be difficult for them to establish a causal nexus from Brady’s injuries in 1981 to his death in 2014 that would hold up in court. The medical examiner, after all, does not face nearly the same burden in proof in making a determination as a prosecutor does in getting a conviction.

It is not patently absurd, however, that someone might be charged with murder 33 years after the actus reus. Consider the following case: Sam injects Bill with a poison that takes 30–35 years to kill depending on one’s natural resistance. The poison goes undetected for 33 years, at which time Bill’s resistance gives out and he dies. It seems clear that Sam is guilty of murdering Bill. Had it not been for the poison, Bill would not have died in that way at that time.

The time lapse, then, is a red herring. The real question is whether or not there are any complicating factors that detract from the argument that Hinckley shooting Brady was the proximate cause of Brady’s death. In any case, I would argue that the prosecution should be required to present a very strong case that a causal nexus exists if they decide to prosecute. So again, I’d like (a lot) more information before making a call one way or the other.

@anniereborn Just because the death was declared a homicide doesn’t mean anyone will be charged. Take the case that I describe above: if Sam dies before the poison overcomes Bill’s immune system, then he will never be charged for the murder. But it doesn’t change the fact that Bill’s death should be declared a homicide.

@Darth_Algar Boxers sign waivers before each match indemnifying their opponent and whatever organization they are boxing under from any liability for injuries or death.

SavoirFaire's avatar

(By the way, I’ve asked a separate question inspired by this one.)

Darth_Algar's avatar


Those wavers only apply to the boxer and/or those relating to him. Basically the competitors, promoters, etc can’t be sued for the death or injury of the boxer. They would not necessarily prevent a ME from ruling the death a homicide or a prosecutor from perusing charges.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Darth_Algar Well, if we want to get really technical, nothing can stop a medical examiner from making whatever declaration he or she finds appropriate. Nor can anything stop a prosecutor from filing charges if he or she is really determined to do so. But unless there is foul play involved, both would be overstepping the law.

The waivers are an indication—and thus prima facie evidence—that a boxing death is accidental and a known risk of participating in the sport. But murder charges require intent and some sort of malice or callousness. Thus the mere fact of dying in the ring is legally insufficient. The prosecutor would need more to make their case.

Darth_Algar's avatar

I didn’t say “dying in the ring”. CTE would be years, often times decades, after the fact, like this. Overstepping was kind of my point.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Darth_Algar True, but the same principle applies. Just exchange “dying from injuries sustained in the ring” for “dying in the ring.” As for overstepping, my point is that the Brady case doesn’t create any precedent that doesn’t already exist.

Darth_Algar's avatar

It doesn’t? Have there been many cases of people being tried for murder decades after being found not guilty of the assault in the same case?

Buttonstc's avatar

I’m wondering if this will give additional aid to those seeking to forestall his pending release.

In Dec. 2013, he was granted eventual realease from custody by a District Court Judge to be done in stages. Currently he is allowed 17 days per month visitation with his mother. There are some restrictions as to where he can go, but not a lot.

His Doctors position is that his mental illness is “in remission” (whatever that means). It doesn’t mean cured; that’s for sure. And is he currently on anti-psychotic medication? What happens if he stops taking it?

Because it happened so long ago and did minimal damage to Pres. Reagan, I think it has significantly faded from public awareness.

But it has NEVER faded from the awareness of Brady family members because his injuries were significantly more than Reagan’s.

Personally, I don’t think he should ever be released because there is no way to determine how much of a threat he still potentially poses. So, if this eventual murder charge would aid in that, I could live with it.

Darth_Algar's avatar

We don’t try him on his mental state now, we try him on his mental state at the time. And his mental state at the time is why he was found not guilty in the first place.

Buttonstc's avatar

But his release (or not) should be predicated upon whether he poses a danger to others.

There is currently zero evidence that he is no longer subject to the same delusions which prompted his actions to begin with.

Being found “not guilty by reason of insanity” does not mean you get a free pass. It means that you won’t be executed for your crime. There are no guarantees that society is obligated to allow you the freedom to walk among us again.

Would you want to be living next door to this guy? I wouldn’t.

Darth_Algar's avatar


Being found “not guilty by reason of insanity” means that a murder charge wouldn’t aid in his non-release now, as he would be tried according to what his mental state was at the time, not what his mental state is now.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Darth_Algar No, it doesn’t. It’s an old legal principle that “intent follows the bullet.” Time lapses have never been considered relevant if a causal nexus can be established, and charges are often upgraded when a victim’s status changes (that is, if they die). Now, I don’t think it would be smart to charge Hinckley with murder. I agree with your point about his past insanity defense. Given that he has already been declared insane at the time, no new prosecution is likely to succeed. But neither the medical examiner’s declaration nor any future decision that might be made to file charges would count as anything new as far as the law goes (for better or worse).

Buttonstc's avatar

I’m not under the illusion that a murder prosecution attempt would be successful.

However, it would serve to bring this back to public awareness. I seriously doubt that there are that many people comfortable with his unsupervised soon release and it’s likely that not many are aware that it may soon be a possibility because so little attention has been focused upon all of this for years.

Even tho until this date he didn’t technically “murder” Brady, it’s obvious that he effectively ended his life (and quality of life) as he had known it.

And there is no guarantee that it couldn’t happen again. People who are psychotic don’t recover without proper medication. And without some supervision of him to ensure this, there is absolutely nothing preventing him again lapsing into a delusional state.

He’s fortunate that he didn’t have to endure the harshness (and hazards) of prison for all these years. From all accounts he has had a pretty good life at St. Elizabeth’s. (he’s certainly had it a hell of a lot better than James Brady.)

So, if pressing murder charges for Brady’s death serves to bring back awareness and results in him remaining under supervision, my opinion is that’s a good thing him.

I’m not arguing for him to be sent to prison but I don’t think that soon-to-be unsupervised freedom makes an iota of sense either.

I’m sure that the Brady and Reagan families would agree.

Darth_Algar's avatar


If he’s been judged to be mentally well enough to have unsupervised visits what this awareness going to do? Are we going to angry mob the court until it says “oh well, if that’s people want….”?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Buttonstc “I’m sure that the Brady and Reagan families would agree.”

But there’s a reason we don’t put the decision in their hands. We’re supposed to have a justice system, not a vengeance system. Hickley’s case will be reviewed thoroughly regardless of how many newspaper articles are being written about him at the time. And hopefully, it will be decided on the facts rather than the public mood.

Buttonstc's avatar

Why are you automatically assuming vengeance? It’s a matter of public safety.

There is nothing preventing him from once again being driven by violent delusions (other than anti-psychotic medication). Granted, the vast majority of people with mental illness are not any more prone to violence than the rest of us.

But the fact remains that this one was and that violence irrevocably altered the lives of total innocents. If he decides to stop taking his medication, it could easily happen again because his type of delusions led to violence. That’s why he should not be unsupervised as if he’s just a garden variety mentally ill person. He’s a violent one and safeguards should be put in place.

Why shouldn’t the general public’s voice be heard regarding that? There’s a huge difference between vengeance and public safety.

Vengeance would just ship him off to rot in prison. That’s hardly what I’m suggesting.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Buttonstc If it’s a matter of public safety, then why mention the Brady and Reagan families at all? I have just as much interest in public safety as they do. The only way in which they are relevant enough to deserve special mention is that they have an additional stake in Hinckley’s incarceration due to being the victims of his attack. That’s why I picked out that particular line of your answer for comment.

If you read the rest of my response, you’ll see that I don’t disagree with the public safety argument. However, I do not take myself—or the public at large—to be in any way a competent judge of Hinckley’s threat level. I am not a professional psychologist, and I certainly haven’t been monitoring his progress for 33 years. Thus why I want the case to be decided on the facts rather than the public mood.

snowberry's avatar

In this case, the law was served, but justice was not. They’re not the same thing, you know.

Darth_Algar's avatar


We are a nation of law, not “justice”. Law is tangible. “Justice” is a vague concept that will vary from person to person.

snowberry's avatar

@Darth_Algar Yes. I know. However I’ve seen so very many innocents harmed by the law that’s supposed to protect them. It’s stupid and senseless, but it’s the American way.

Darth_Algar's avatar


Would a nation of citizens all dispensing what they believe is justice be better?

ragingloli's avatar

depends on how badly the law is applied

snowberry's avatar

@Darth_Algar “Would a nation of citizens all dispensing what they believe is justice be better?”

I didn’t mean that. Only that enforcement of our laws often hurt those they are intended to protect. Our judges are often forced to follow to the letter of the law rather than the intent of the law. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard a judge say that he’d like to sentence someone to a lesser amount because the circumstances, but the law requires him to do sentence him to a harsher sentence or fine.

Darth_Algar's avatar

That’s a problem with mandatory minimums, not necessarily the laws themselves.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Darth_Algar Mandatory minimums are part of the law. So if they are a problem, then they are a problem with the laws themselves. That certain laws—or parts of certain laws—are problematic, after all, does not entail that having laws is problematic (though some might argue even that).

So what @snowberry may be getting at is this: we may be a nation of laws, but the laws are at least supposed to aim at justice. Thus any law that is unjust ought to be repealed or else revised so as to make it just. You seem to think this is impossible, but it is unclear why. For one, disagreement regarding justice is insufficient to demonstrate that there are no facts of the matter. Second, not all facts are objective (so even if justice is in some way dependent upon our ideas about justice, it does not follow that justice is relative).

Darth_Algar's avatar

Where did I hint at or imply that legal reform is impossible? What leads you to jump at that conclusion?

And personally I think “justice” is a near meaningless, feel-good term. No one seems to be able to agree on what, exactly, justice is suppose to be. Perhaps you feel justice should be retributive. I feel that justice is/should be restorative. But restoration is pretty much impossible in most cases. Thus I feel the law should aim not for some vague, ill-defined notion called “justice, but should aim for restoration of damages when possible (vary rarely), mitigation of future damages, and reformation of those who have inflicted the damage so that they may go on to become contributing members of society (this would be seen by many as a waste of taxpayer money and seen as giving criminals a second chance/being soft on crime).

snowberry's avatar

I also agree that justice should be not only restorative, but protective as well. I don’t see it happen so much. @Darth_Algar and @SavoirFaire Perhaps you’d like to comment here:

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