The death this week of James Brady, the former White House press secretary, has been ruled a homicide 33 years after he was wounded in an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, police department officials here said on Friday.
Officials said the ruling was made by the medical examiner in Northern Virginia, where Brady died Monday at 73. The medical examiner’s office would not comment on the cause and manner of Brady death. “We did do an autopsy on Mr. Brady, and that autopsy is complete,” a spokeswoman said.
Gail Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Brady family, said the ruling should really “be no surprise to anybody.”
“Jim had been long suffering severe health consequences since the shooting,” she said, adding that the family had not received official word of the ruling from either the medical examiner’s office or the police.
The ruling could allow prosecutors in Washington, where Reagan and Brady were shot on March 30, 1981, by John Hinckley Jr., to reopen the case and charge Hinckley with murder. The U.S. attorney’s office said Friday that it was “reviewing the ruling on the death of Mr. Brady” and had no further comment.
Hinckley was found not guilty in 1982 by reason of insanity on charges ranging from attempted assassination of the president to possession of an unlicensed pistol. The verdict was met with such outrage that many states and the federal government altered laws to make it harder to use the insanity defense. Hinckley, now 59, has been a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington since the trial.
There is no statute of limitations on murder charges, but any attempt to retry Hinckley would be a challenge for prosecutors, in part because he was ruled insane, said Hugh Keefe, a Connecticut defense lawyer who taught trial advocacy at Yale University.
“They’re dead in the water,” Keefe said. “That’s the end of that case because we have double jeopardy. He was tried, he was found not guilty based on insanity.”
But George J. Terwilliger III, who was the assistant U.S. attorney in Washington when he wrote the search warrant for Hinckley’s hotel room, said there might be grounds for a new trial. “Generally, a new homicide charge would be adjudicated on its merits without reference to a prior case,” said Terwilliger, who became a deputy attorney general under the elder President George Bush and is now in private practice. “The real challenge here would be to prove causation for the death.”
Hinckley’s lawyer, Barry W. Levine, acknowledged that new charges were possible, but he said that the possibility was “far-fetched in the extreme.”
“There’s nothing new here that happened,” he said.
News of the medical examiner’s ruling was first reported by the NBC station in Washington.
Reagan, as well as a Secret Service agent and a District of Columbia police officer, were wounded in the shooting, but Brady was the most seriously injured. He was shot in the head, damaging the right section of his brain.
After the shooting, Brady and his wife, Sarah, became a leading advocates for gun control and pushed legislation requiring background checks. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law, which required background checks and waiting periods for prospective handgun purchases.
“Twelve years ago, my life was changed forever by a disturbed young man with a gun,” Brady said from his wheelchair at the bill signing. “Until that time, I hadn’t thought much about gun control or the need for gun control. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have been stuck with these damn wheels.”