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James Brady, who served only a few months as President Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary before being left paralyzed during an assassination attempt on the President on March 30, 1981, died August 4, 2014 at the age of 73.
Following the shooting, Brady became the face of the gun control movement. He spent the final 33 years of his life, paralyzed and confined to a wheel chair.
The shooter, John Hinckley Jr., was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was ordered to be held in a psychiatric facility, where he remains to this day.
A sad story and one which took a bizarre twist when a Northern Virginia Medical Examiner ruled Brady’s death a homicide, deciding that the wound he suffered 33 years earlier eventually led to his death.
I have problem with that. Not with the ruling of homicide, but rather with the significance, consequences and legal questions it generates.
I especially have a problem with those who would use it to debate gun control, the death penalty or some other politically motivated cause.
Without minimizing the suffering of James Brady, and certainly with no intent of forgiveness for John Hinckley Jr., one must consider the value of such a determination. I do not question, or fault, the ruling, but it seems to point up some basic weaknesses in our system of justice.
I suppose it is technically accurate to make an assumption that, without the gunshot wound, Brady might have lived three more years, to age 76, the standard life expectancy for men in the U.S. in 2014, or even beyond.
Most certainly the pain and suffering Brady and his family endured must be taken into account when considering what punishment is appropriate.
Our laws are intended to protect the innocent from unfair, unjust or unreasonable penalty. Because we are so cognizant of injustice perpetrated by other nations and governments, over history, we go to extremes to prevent unjust punishment of innocents.
It’s said that “Wheels of justice grind slow but grind exceedingly fine”, and that is how it should be in order to achieve the highest degree of justice.
However, is there a point at which we must ask ourselves, what purpose does it serve and is it worth it? Does it change anything?
In the worlds of a former Secretary of State, “What difference does it make?”
My concern is not with the Medical Examiner or his determination. I will assume that he believes the gunshot wound was the ultimate, although long delayed, cause of death.
The problem lies with the sensational media (both left and right), who seek to politicize the issue, assisted by over eager, nit-picking lawyers who will no doubt squabble over these questions for years.
The first question they address is double jeopardy. Can/will Hinckley be tried a second time for a crime he was already found innocent of (due to mental incompetency)? Technically possible but very unlikely.
The second question is, with or without a second trial, will it affect the conditions of Hinckley’s current confinement? Again, the answer is possible, but very unlikely.
These questions, and any answers they might provide, are an exercise in futility. While they may be of passing interest to some, they promise no real change in the status quo.
Would we not be better served if the hysterical, sensational, media concentrated on the real issues?
Great strides have been made in incarceration policies in the past several decades, but remain largely inconsistent from one state to another.
The sentence for first degree homicide can vary from life to as little as five years, even in states which have a death penalty. The average time for actual time served is often much less.
In some jurisdictions a sentence can be imposed as mandatory with no possibility of parole, while other states have a ‘percentage’ system whereby specific crimes require only a percentage of the sentence to be mandatory.
Doesn’t that seem a bit oxymoronic?
What’s the point of rendering a sentence if it is not intended to be served?
It’s easy to blame ‘soft’ judges for ridiculously short sentences, but regardless of what the judge determines, it is often ignored by parole boards.
To try and get around such early releases, some magistrates utilize concurrent sentencing, life plus one day, or outrageously long sentences such as 900 years or more. Sometimes it works - - sometimes it doesn’t.
The argument for early release is our overcrowded prisons. We literally cannot afford to house the growing number of criminals.
The most popular solutions are, 1) shorter sentences or 2) early release.
Neither of these is in accordance with the overall general desire to ‘get tough on crime’.
The disparity in sentencing is illustrated in two cases:
In December 2013, Texas State District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced a North Texas teenager, Ethan Couch to 10 years probation for drunk driving and killing four pedestrians and injuring 11.
In 2009, an Oklahoma Judge sentenced Cecilia Cathleen Rodriguez to life in prison for stealing two purses. Granted, Rodriguez had been convicted of theft 28 previous times. However, no matter how obviously incorrigible she may be, theft does not rise to the level of negligently killing four people.
The disparity in sentencing is obvious. So is a solution.
Standardized sentencing, even if only within individual states, is a priority.
More to the point, a sentence is what it is. Time off for ‘good behavior’ is the ultimate stupidity. If a criminal exhibited good behavior, he wouldn’t be in prison in the first place. The rate of recidivism clearly indicates that ‘good behavior’ is often temporary at best.
Is it possible that the variance in sentencing and the laxity in enforcement of the sentence, plays a large part in the rise in prison population?
Could the odds of ‘getting away with it’ or serving shortened sentences encourage some to recklessly commit these egregious actions?
Forget all the moral proclamations of ‘justice’, no punishment serves to erase a murder. Nothing we can do will ‘justify’ the deaths of innocent  people.
The purpose of incarceration is intended to prevent a criminal from repeating his crime, plain and simple.
Make no mistake, our system of justice is the benchmark for the world. It is far and above any other system on the globe, past or present.
However, it is far from perfect and unless we address it’s imperfections, and correct them, they will continue to grow.
It is not a case of ‘getting tough on crime’, but rather one of insuring that the punishment fits the crime and the penalty reflects the sentence.
Prison reform is a continuing hot button issue, but like the weather, everyone talks about it and nothing is done.
The case of James Brady should serve as a wake-up call for all of us. Instead of using it to promote or negate a political issue, it must serve as a guidepost for a rational, common-sense, approach to a problem that is growing day by day.