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Post Insanity Defense; John Hinckley Today
Created by John Eipper on 10/30/14 1:45 PM

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Insanity Defense; John Hinckley Today (Massoud Malek, USA, 10/30/14 1:45 pm)

"The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" is a dark comedy short story written by Edgar Allan Poe. At the time he wrote the story of patients who thought themselves as a teapot, donkey, cheese, pumpkin, champagne, or a frog, acquittals due to the insanity defense, which allowed wealthy criminals to avoid punishment, became almost a norm.

In 1981, John W. Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley was prosecuted and acquitted of all charges by reason of insanity. After the trial, Reagan called for a total abolition of mental illness as a defense to criminal charges, but his administration backed down from this position after intense lobbying by various professional organizations and trade associations. The fact about the insanity defense is that only wealthy defendants can retain high-priced psychiatric experts. Persons represented by public defenders are usually afforded a psychiatric examination for the defense, but they may not get the same quality of exam, nor are they typically able to hire more than one examiner.


According to the NAACP, 25% of the world's prisoners live in American prisons. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled--from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. African-Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. They are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Together, African-Americans and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.

One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. 1 in 100 African-American women are in prison. About 14 million whites and 2.6 million African-Americans report using an illicit drug. Five times as many whites are using drugs as African-Americans, yet African-Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. African-Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).


Under federal law, "the simple possession of just 5 grams of crack cocaine, the weight of about two sugar packets, subjects a defendant to a mandatory five-year prison term." In 2009, in Alabama, the average sentence for marijuana possession--an offense for which most Western countries almost never imprison their citizens--was 8.4 years. Until recently, the state of Florida "imposed mandatory minimum sentences of 25 years for illegally carrying a pillbox-worth of drugs such as Oxycontin," and still imposes shockingly Draconian mandatory sentences even for marijuana offenses. In 2007, a homeless man robbed a Louisiana bank and took a $100 bill. After feeling remorseful, he surrendered to police the next day. The judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison.


While African-Americans spend several years in prison for possessing five grams of crack cocaine, the son of an oil exploration business owner who shot four people, including a US president, enjoys his monthly visits from the hospital to his mother's house. He is even allowed to drive alone and spend up to 17 days with his mother. In December 2013, Hinckley's doctors and therapists had asked the judge to gradually expand the length of Hinckley's trips from the hospital in Washington DC to his mother's home in Williamsburg to up to 24 days and eventually allow him to reside there full time.


In 2013, America executed more people than Somalia or Sudan. Gas chambers were used to end the lives of 39 people. When was the last time Texas, Florida, or Oklahoma executed a wealthy man? I believe that a two-tiered criminal justice system discriminating on the basis of socioeconomic status, race, and geography, is morally repugnant. Therefore the insanity defense along with the death penalty must be abolished.

JE comments:  I recently had dinner with an old friend, a psychologist who often evaluates death-row inmates in a southern US state.  His conclusion:  most of the condemned on Death Row are guilty of being "criminally Black," "criminally poor," or both.

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