Viewpoint

John Hinckley Jr., Freddie Gray – and America’s legal system

Prosecutors in the Freddie Gray case didn’t just need to believe someone is guilty – they also had to have reasonable confidence that a conviction was possible.
Prosecutors in the Freddie Gray case didn’t just need to believe someone is guilty – they also had to have reasonable confidence that a conviction was possible. TNS

Two big legal decisions accidentally converged Wednesday, each likely to be deplored by a different political constituency.

Baltimore prosecutors dropped all charges against three police officers who had been accused in the death of Freddie Gray, which will frustrate Black Lives Matter supporters. And a federal judge is allowing John Hinckley Jr., who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan, to move into his mother's house in a "convalescent release" — a decision criticized by Donald Trump and others.

The two decisions have something important in common: They both came from conscientious public officials who were following the laws that govern their jobs.

Start with the police officers. The Baltimore state's attorney's office had tried to prosecute four officers; one prosecution ended in a hung jury; the three others led to acquittals by a state trial judge.

Given those outcomes, the prosecutor decided to drop the parallel charges against the three remaining officers.

It's not that the prosecutor thought the officers weren't guilty. Confidence in a defendant's guilt isn't enough for prosecutors to bring charges. The prosecutor must have reasonable confidence a conviction is possible, according to the American Bar Association's ethical standards.

After failure to convict the first three cops, the Baltimore prosecutor could not say credibly there was sufficient admissible evidence against the next three to get a conviction.

The ethics here make sense. Bringing a prosecution is one of the most powerful exercises of state authority in America. It imposes huge personal and financial costs on defendants. We don't want prosecutors to be able to bring charges they know won't succeed just to send a message to the public or punish defendants whom the prosecutors believe to be guilty.

Hinckley’s case is oddly similar. A federal jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity after his attempted assassination of Reagan in 1981. That was probably the correct result under federal law as it was then.

After public outrage, the federal government and many states changed their insanity tests, reverting to an older standard under which Hinckley would likely have been found guilty. But that test didn't apply to his trial.

Having been found not guilty, Hinckley was still put in a federal mental institution. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman had to consider his request for convalescent leave against the backdrop of expert testimony and legal rules that govern the issue. The experts all testified that Hinckley's depression and psychosis have been in remission for a while.

Given this evidence, and that Hinckley was not convicted of a crime, Friedman had little choice but to grant the convalescent release.

The judge barred Hinckley from knowingly going to areas where the president or members of Congress live and barred him from contact with the actor Jodie Foster, with whom Hinckley was obsessed at the time of his crime.

Outrage about the decision has more to do with outrage about Hinckley's acquittal than anything else. In that sense, it may be justified. But the judge must follow legal rules, regardless of how unpopular the result will be. Hinckley was acquitted by reason of insanity and no longer poses a threat on that basis, so the law says he must be released.

The law isn't perfect. For human judges and prosecutors to abstract from particular circumstances is an aspiration, not a scientific certainty. But if we believe in the law as a system, we should be prepared to accept its consequences, even when we don't like them.

Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a Harvard professor of constitutional and international law.

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