Homicide Ruling In Brady Death Called Unprecedented

The death Monday of former presidential press secretary James Brady has been ruled a homicide. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks with Paul Rothstein about the many legal questions raised by the finding.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The recent death of former presidential press secretary James Brady was ruled a homicide this past weekend by medical examiners in Virginia. Brady was shot in the head during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Georgetown Law professor Paul Rothstein joined us to discuss the implications for John Hinckley, who shot both men. Thank you very much for coming in.

PAUL ROTHSTEIN: It's my pleasure, indeed.

WERTHEIMER: Now the first question is will this ruling allow prosecutors in Washington to reopen the case against John Hinckley? He was the man who gravely injured James Brady and two others in his efforts to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

ROTHSTEIN: This medical examiner ruling doesn't really have an effect on a criminal case. You have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. But what it does do is it puts into the ethos kind of an atmosphere that maybe something should be done.

WERTHEIMER: What about the possibility that somebody with their eye on the future might decide to bring a case - some young prosecutor decides that this is important to do?

ROTHSTEIN: That may well happen. There are a number of difficult legal problems, but they're not insurmountable. The pulling of the trigger has to be considered not just the cause of the ultimate death, but the proximate cause. Mr. Brady was 73-years-old. Perhaps he would have died around this time anyway. So you have to have some kind of real tight causal connection between the two.

WERTHEIMER: Is there any precedent for doing this - for bringing charges against somebody whose victim died much, much later of injuries sustained years before?

ROTHSTEIN: To my knowledge, there is no case where there has been this much time between the pulling of the trigger and the ultimate death - 33 years. There are cases where people have been in a coma between and then died, but nothing nearly this long.

WERTHEIMER: How do you think this is likely to affect all of the efforts that Mr. Hinckley and, particularly, Mr. Hinckley's family have been making to free him? Does this change anything? Does this sit somewhere on the scales of justice and move things around?

ROTHSTEIN: Legally, it should not matter. But as a matter of human affairs, President Reagan was a revered figure in many quarters, and anything that had to do with him takes on importance. And I think it almost definitely decreases his chances of getting greater freedom than he would've gotten otherwise.

WERTHEIMER: Georgetown Law professor Paul Rothstein, thank you very much for doing this.

ROTHSTEIN: Thank you.

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