image credit: News & Observer

James Brady died of a gunshot wound from 33 years ago, when an assassination attempt was made on then president Ronald Reagan. At the time of his death, Reagan’s press secretary was living in a retirement community in Alexandria, Virginia. The announcement about the manner or cause of death was declared by D.C. Police Department Chief Spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump.

The issue in the coming days surrounding the James Brady death will not pertain to health complications, or Brady’s health in general, but rather, the cause of his homicide and whether or not the one accused of the Reagan assassination attempt back in 1981, John W. Hinckley Jr., can be arrested and/or sentenced for his death after 33 years.

These types of “ricochet” cases (to use a gun term with which many are familiar) are not all that uncommon. A Pennsylvania man was arrested in 1966 for shooting a police officer, he was re-arrested in 2007 (41 years later) after the police officer died from the same gunshot wound he had incurred 41 years earlier. Although he endured a jury trial, he was acquitted and freed of being arrested a second time.

There are other such cases, but the question remains: should someone, arrested for shooting an individual decades ago, be tried and found guilty if the person dies? How does someone get shot, live 31 years, and then die of the same gunshot wound 31 years later? This is what seems puzzling to many individuals, but it is no different than if an individual gets shot, lives a few days in the hospital, then dies. What is at stake is not whether or not John Hinckley Jr. committed the crime; he was insane, and thought that Ronald Reagan’s death would impress actress Jodie Foster. What is at stake is the idea that Hinckley, upon his arrest in 1981, was declared insane.

After all these years, would it be fair to take a man who was declared insane at the time of the crime, and arrest him 31 years later for the same crime for which he was found guilty by reason of mental disease or defect? Some would say that it is fair for Hinckley to be tried for this, but would not the result be the same as it was in 1981? Had James Brady died in 1981, and Hinckley were tried, would he not have been acquitted because of mental disease? If so, why then, would a new trial yield a different outcome?

It is unfortunate that James Brady died because of the 33-year-old gunshot wound, and no one wants to see anyone shot in an assassination attempt (no one wants assassination attempts at all). Most Americans wish that they lived in a world where assassination attempts were unheard of. At the same time, however, when one considers James Brady’s long life (73 years) and the fact that he lived to be nearly twice the age he was at the time of the Reagan assassination attempt, trudging up new charges against John Hinckley, Jr. would not be a fruitful pursuit in the least.

Cases like these happen, and the legal system must find a way to deal with them. John Hinckley Jr. was placed into a mental institution after James Brady’s injury, and he did serve his time there. He still serves time in a mental institution, despite the fact that he does get to see his mother a few days a year, and he should not be given more time for freedom with his family until he is declared to no longer be a danger to himself or others (if that day ever arrives). According to the former Reagan assassination prosecutor Thomas Zeno, “They are going to have to look at the legal questions. They are going to have to look at the factual questions, if they can really show the direct linkage [between the assault and Brady’s death] beyond a reasonable doubt. And then they are going to have to make the decision about whether it is the right thing to do.”

Is it the right thing to do? The answer is complex. It seems, in many ways, that double jeopardy should apply here. The important point in all of this is that James Brady, despite the complications, did live. He did get to experience an additional 33 years of life that he would not have gotten to live if he had died in the Reagan assassination attempt. At the end of the day, no human has control over when someone lives and dies, and the case of James Brady is no different.

The American legal system must set a time period in which, should a person receive a gunshot injury, he or she can have a death declaration declared. It could be a year or two years, but there should be some sort of declaration that allows a criminal to be prosecuted for murder if the victim dies before the individual goes to trial. If the individual has not faced trial yet for the murder attempt, the charge can then be amended to murder if the victim dies between the attempted murder arrest and standing trial for that arrest. If the victim lives beyond the appointed date of the trial, then the individual would only be tried for the murder attempt – even if the person dies during or immediately after the trial.

When James Brady has been put to rest and America moves on, the tension between long-time deaths and immediate deaths in murder attempts will still be debated, but the legal system has got to put some measures in place so that these questions do not continue to dominate American legal statutes.

The James Brady death due to homicide is unfortunate, but, until the American legal system clarifies its rules on death, homicide declarations, and arrests for future changes in the life of an individual (dying from a 33-year-old gunshot wound, for example), James Brady will not be the last victim of a ricocheted homicide.