Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The John Hinckley Case

Trial Begins

Presiding over the trial of John Hinckley, Jr. was Judge Barrington D. Parker, a black Republican who had been appointed by President Richard Nixon. Parker had a sharply receding hairline, a trim mustache, and a serious, scholarly manner. He was disabled and walked with the help of crutches.

Vincent Fuller, a short, stocky, silver-haired man, led the defense team. He was a partner in the respected, high-priced Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly. Assisting him was a tall young attorney with the memorable name, Greg Craig.

The tall, self-confident Roger Adelman, who enjoyed sporting broad ties decorated with Stars and Stripes, led the prosecution.

"The jury's got to be well-educated," Jack Hinckley kept saying before they were impaneled. After all, they would be going over some of the most complex medical and legal issues in existence, questions that even experts find confusing. However, he and everyone else connected with the case knew that the chances of a jury composed of people boasting advanced degrees was slim. The pool consisted of Washington, D.C., inner-city residents. They were people who were likely to start out with a grudge against a privileged child of the suburbs. Thus, John's attorneys had to ask every prospective juror if he or she could be impartial to a defendant from an affluent suburban background. Even more embarrassingly, they had to ask prospective jurors, mostly blacks, if they could be impartial toward a person who was prejudiced against blacks.

The jury that was impaneled consisted of seven women and five men. There were 11 blacks and one white. They were working class, blue and pink collar people. The group included a janitor, two secretaries, an information-control clerk, a parking lot attendant, and a hotel banquet worker. These were the people who would decide the fate of a bigoted white from an affluent family who had been recorded on videotape shooting the president of the United States and three other people.

Many observers believed a trial was a waste of time and money. A guilty verdict seemed a foregone conclusion.

Hinckley's family and his attorneys pinned their few hopes on one early victory. Judge Parker had ruled that the burden of proof regarding the defendant's mental status would rest with the prosecution. Thus, the district attorney had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, at the time of the shooting, John Hinckley Jr. was legally sane.

In his opening, prosecutor Adelman emphasized evidence that the defendant had stalked his targets, had exercised care in choosing the exploding Devastator bullets to maximize the damage to his victims, and that four of six of his shots had hit people.

The defense opening did not dispute the facts mentioned by Adelman but asserted that they were the actions of a person who could not be held fully responsible because his mind was so unhinged.

The government's case started with two powerful videotapes. The courtroom was darkened while six TV sets displayed a crowd on a campaign stop that then-President Jimmy Carter had made in Dayton, Ohio, in 1980. The action was stopped. A pointer was directed at a small face in the background of the screen: that of John Hinckley, Jr.

Then the tape of the terrible events of March 30, 1981, a tape that had been seen innumerable times in TV sets in homes all across America, was played. The jury saw, as they had to have seen as private citizens before, John take aim at President Reagan. They heard the panicked cries of "President Reagan, President Reagan!" as well as the six pops almost masked by the noise of big city traffic.

Two of those John shot, police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, took the witness stand. The jury was shown photos of all four victims and articles of clothing that still bore bloodstains. A neurosurgeon from George Washington University Hospital testified about how James Brady's brain had been damaged by the shooting.

Gun evidence
Gun evidence

Ballistics experts identified the gun that John had used. They showed the bullets recovered from the victims. A FBI agent read from a postcard that John had written to Jodie Foster but never mailed. "Dear Jodie," it read, "one day you and I will occupy the White House and the peasants will drool with envy."

The evidence and testimony were powerful and moving. John had done incalculable harm. Brady was permanently disabled by the defendant's bullet.

After the prosecution rested its opening case, the defense began.

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