James Brady's Homicide: Murder, 33 Years Later?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on August 12, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

James Brady, President Ronald Reagan's former press secretary, died last week at a Virginia retirement community. However, the medical examiner's office ruled his death a homicide, from a shooting that occurred more than 30 years prior.

Brady was shot in 1981 during an assassination attempt on President Reagan by John W. Hinckley Jr. The Washington Post reports that Hinckley, now 59, was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the shooting, and has been housed at St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital ever since.

With Brady's death being ruled a homicide, many are wondering: Could Hinckley be brought up on new murder charges for shooting Brady?

Brady's Fatal Brain Injury

On the day of the Reagan assassination attempt, Brady was the first person shot by Hinckley. According to the Post, a bullet entered his head above his left eye; the bullet then fractured into dozens of pieces. Although Brady survived the surgeries intended to stabilize him after the shooting, Brady was left partially paralyzed and required continuous care.

Brady was certainly infirmed from the shooting, but can Hinckley really be charged with Brady's murder, three decades later?

No Statute of Limitations on Murder

Unlike many other criminal or civil offenses, in most states there is no statute of limitations on murder. That means that despite the amount of time which had passed since the actual shooting, a "cold case" murder may be prosecuted whenever the state is ready and willing to bring a defendant to trial.

Practically, however, prosecutors tend to refuse cases which are decades old, as witnesses' memories fade and resources are often insufficient to dredge up old evidence.

Double Jeopardy and Murder

However, since Brady didn't die until last week, the murder "clock" for prosecutors may not have even started ticking until now. But Hinckley was already tried for Brady's shooting in the 80s, and defendants cannot be tried for the same crime twice -- something that's known as double jeopardy. As Hinckley's attorney told the Post, after being found not guilty of assault, "[h]ow could he be found guilty of the more serious charge?"

There's also the issue of whether murder can be found when the victim dies 33 years later. Georgetown Law professor Paul Rothstein told NPR that unless the prosecution can prove Hinckley's bullet was the proximate cause of Brady's death, they might not have a case.

Federal prosecutors have yet to comment on potential murder charges.

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