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James Brady
August 9, 2014 7:11 AM   Subscribe

In an unprecedented move, former United States press secretary James Brady's death has been ruled a homicide, 33 years after he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. Some history of the incident at the Washington Hilton and a sweet rememberance of "Bear".
posted by josher71 (47 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Enh, even though the one ME declared it "a little bit unprecedented," I think that's about as far as you can go. Patrolman James Trepanier's death, 10 years after he was shot, was treated similarly.
posted by kavasa at 7:28 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]


So glad someone posted about this; I find the ruling of homicide at this point in time really strange, and am hoping some MeFites can shed light on the legality of this.

Upon preview: It does strikes me as unprecedented, and a strange ruling.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:30 AM on August 9


I'm fully prepared to accept that I'm wrong and it is with precedent so have at it!
posted by josher71 at 7:31 AM on August 9


There's no statute of limitations on a medical cause of death. If the physician decides that complications from an injury ultimately caused the victim's death, even decades after the fact, that injury is still the cause of death.

That doesn't mean they can prosecute Hinckley for it, though.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:32 AM on August 9 [9 favorites]




joseph conrad, I linked to a precedent. It's a real thing, right there, and in fact it conforms very closely to Brady's case in that the victim was paralyzed by a gunshot wound. How can you look at a precedent and go "I don't see any precedents"? Keep in mind that case is from a mid-size Midwestern city, and it seems to beggar belief that there wouldn't be any similar cases from larger cities.

It's also not so much strange as it is rare. Fatal injuries typically kill quickly. But the medical reasoning is that whatever ultimately killed the person wouldn't have existed without the original injury.

I'll steal a fictional scenario a death investigator from the local ME office gave us yesterday. Imagine an old woman is walking along the street, and someone grabs her purse. She's knocked over on the ground and breaks her hip. She goes to the hospital and undergoes surgery to repair the hip. She's placed in a nursing home to heal from the surgery, and while there she catches pneumonia. Her system, weakened by the injury and the surgery, succumbs to pneumonia. According to the death investigator, in our county, that would be ruled a homicide.

I'd have to ask a county attorney if they'd want to charge that as murder*, but it seems at least possible to me, since it was a death caused without intent during the commission of a felony, making it murder 2.

josher71, sorry if it seems like I'm picking on your post. I promise I'm not, was just interested in the wording and wanted to mention related cases. =)

*remember that homicide and murder are different things
posted by kavasa at 7:51 AM on August 9 [7 favorites]


In a similar vein, J. L. Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels in Gettysburg), who died in 1914, is credited as being the last civil war veteran to die of their wounds.
posted by miguelcervantes at 7:54 AM on August 9 [5 favorites]


josher71, sorry if it seems like I'm picking on your post

Not at all! I was just surprised and had never heard of such a thing previously. So I was swayed by the unprecedented quote.
posted by josher71 at 7:57 AM on August 9


The worst part of reading any of the news stories about this is the commenters who insist that this is one last ploy by his $%$^^%$ wife to besmirch his name in an effort to grab guns.
posted by drewbage1847 at 8:12 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


It's really not unprecedented--as noted above, it's just rare. Homicide statutes are written and construed so that a death caused by the injuries of an attempted murder is--basically--the completion of the attempt (provided there is no obvious intervening event that surpasses the original injury in causing the death), regardless of how long it takes for death to occur. It's a standard first year law school exam question, honestly.

Prosecution is difficult but discretionary and I, personally, feel it would be an abuse of discretion to prosecute in this case. It's an interesting and notable part of the American legal system--I think. It's one of the indicia that the system favors prosecution and often contorts itself to prevent a sense that someone got away with something.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:30 AM on August 9 [5 favorites]


There's no reason to prosecute him now.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:37 AM on August 9


This is an odd ruling: Brady was 73 when he died. At what point does old age become the cause of death rather than the attempted murder 33 years ago? If he had lived to 98, would this still have been ruled a homicide? It just seems like a stretch to call it that.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 8:42 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


The ME made that call, LOLAttorney. Presumably that ME believes that complications from the gunshot killed him. If he had lived to 98 but would likely have lived to 99 without having been shot, I would guess that the ME's call would have been the same.
posted by maryr at 8:45 AM on August 9 [3 favorites]


By these standards did Hinckley assassinate Reagan? I can imagine the trauma interrupted blood flow to the brain and ultimately hastened dementia. (no snark, please)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:46 AM on August 9


(Also, I don't think 73 is considered terminally old these days. Old enough that you haven't died young, yes, but "young" enough that we still prefer to attribute a cause, like heart attack or cancer, to it.)
posted by maryr at 8:47 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]


A mandatory 33-year waiting period between shooting and death would be a boon to gunshot victims everywhere.

Get on that, Washington.
posted by dr_dank at 8:57 AM on August 9 [3 favorites]


It's not going to result in additional charges for Hinckley, so at the most it'll be a footnote in history.
posted by arcticseal at 8:57 AM on August 9


dances_with_sneetches: it's unlikely that Regan's death could be attributed to injuries sustained in the assassination attempt. That's where the medical examiner comes in. It's not as simple as: oh you were shot once and that means you were more frail as a 73 year old than most people are.

I know nothing, really, about Brady's or Regan's medical histories, so this is just a simple example. But--say you were shot in the head and in a coma for six years, at the end of which you died from liver cancer. The ME could not rule that your death was a homicide related to the gunshot wound. I suspect Regan's case is much more like that example than Brady's death.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:03 AM on August 9


By these standards did Hinckley assassinate Reagan?

Unless the bullets were made of aluminium, probably not, since Reagan died from Alzheimer's disease, which is not known to be caused by being shot at.
posted by Mr. Six at 9:06 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]


More famous and slightly longer precedent: David Gunby, victim of the 1966 UT Austin bell tower shootings (I won't name the asshole who did it), died in 2001 of causes directly related to the kidney damage done by the shootings. The ME ruled Gunby's death a homicide.
posted by Etrigan at 9:06 AM on August 9 [6 favorites]


Another data point: Buffalo, NY police officer Patricia Parete was shot and paralyzed in the course of duty back in 2006; when she died seven years later in 2013 due to complications from her injuries, the ME ruled it a homicide. It's no 33 years, but it's still a significant gap between event --> death.
posted by none of these will bring disaster at 9:39 AM on August 9


Actually head trauma is associated with increasing the likelihood of the onset of Alzheimer's and other dementia. I was arguing that the bullet wounds, loss of blood caused head trauma.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:44 AM on August 9


Think of it as a series of dominoes:

1) A gunshot wound of the head causes
2) Paralysis/Impaired mobility which leads to a
3) Compromised ability to fight infection which leads to
4) An infection (usually pneumonia, sometimes sepsis due to bed sores) which leads to
5) Death

Were it not for the first domino to fall, the rest of the events would not have transpired. Ergo James Brady's death was ruled as a Homicide.
posted by Renoroc at 9:59 AM on August 9


Actually head trauma is associated with increasing the likelihood of the onset of Alzheimer's and other dementia. I was arguing that the bullet wounds, loss of blood caused head trauma.

"Associated with" and "caused" are not the same thing.
posted by scody at 10:03 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


I was arguing that the bullet wounds, loss of blood caused head trauma.

Brady's pathologist was apparently trained to be able to establish a direct causal link between his death and a well-documented record of long-term complications from his wounds, and thus rule his death was a homicide.

Reagan's pathologist likely had similar training but was unable to determine that his Alzheimer's was caused specifically by brain trauma from loss of blood from the event of the assassination attempt.

To the extent that Alzheimer's disease has many causes, some genetic, some environmental, the rest unknown, and that your hypothesis about Reagan's death effectively requires revising the pathologist's findings, you'd need more data, like a documented history of medical records that track his mental state before, during and after the trauma — cognitive tests, neuroimaging (cranial CT and MRI scans), etc.
posted by Mr. Six at 10:08 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


I sometimes wonder about an alternate reality where Hinckley had better aim and took down only Reagan. We'd be rid of Reagan before he could leave his pungent 80s legacy, and probably there would have new effective gun law reforms in the wake of a presidential assassination.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 10:09 AM on August 9


So if someone shoots you, the bullet goes through and gets embedded in a wall, you are patched up and recover fully, and one day when you're walking by that building there's a workman prying the bullet out of the wall and as the bullet comes free his elbow bumps you and knocks you off the curb and you're hit by a UPS truck and die, did the original shooter murder you?
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:26 AM on August 9 [4 favorites]


> We'd be rid of Reagan before he could leave his pungent 80s legacy

Or you could have gotten two terms minus 96 days of Bush 1 (Reagan's VP) and then two terms of Bush 2 and no Clinton at all. Alternative history is a bit of a crapshoot.
posted by jfuller at 10:28 AM on August 9


Why is "homicide" something a medical examiner determines? It seems like their role should be to determine the direct facts of the injury and death: "Death resulted from long-term effects of a gunshot wound." Then it should be the responsibility of the police (and subsequently the prosecution) to link those facts to a person's actions: "Gunshot wound resulted from intentional shooting performed by John Hinckley, Jr."

It seems like a minor distinction, but it's relevant here: it's taken for granted in the article that Hinckley won't be charged with murder in this case (and indeed, there's already legal precedent that he would not be considered guilty of that charge). So calling it "homicide" doesn't really add anything to the outcome and just obscures the factual conclusion that the GSW was the underlying cause of death.
posted by Riki tiki at 10:39 AM on August 9


the medical reasoning is that whatever ultimately killed the person wouldn't have existed without the original injury.

In philosophy, these kind of claims are called counterfactuals. ("it would have happened differently, contrary to the way it did actually happen") Evaluating when counterfactuals are true is fraught with peril. Perverse causal chains abound, as jfuller points out.

For example, a guy who delivers my newspaper late and therefore I don't get the notice of local roadwork in time, and therefore I take the wrong route and get delayed, and that means I happen to be on a bridge when it collapses. Sure it would have happened differently without his action, but surely that's not enough to charge homicide. We'd all be homiciding each other all day long.

There must be an additional element that makes this ok.

Homicide statutes are written and construed so that a death caused by the injuries of an attempted murder is--basically--the completion of the attempt (provided there is no obvious intervening event that surpasses the original injury in causing the death)

Yes! There we go. Ah, metaphysics of causation with its finely-tuned caveats, how I love you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:49 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


erp, I mean "as George_Spiggott points out"
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:54 AM on August 9


Or you could have gotten two terms minus 96 days of Bush 1 (Reagan's VP) and then two terms of Bush 2 and no Clinton at all.

Or two terms of Bush I, two terms of Quayle, and a half term of Cheney, shot down by an enraged Jodie Foster, her career in ruins by its association with a President's assassination.

Like the man says, it's a crapshoot.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:56 AM on August 9 [5 favorites]


Lobster, it's a medical determination and not a legal or philosophical one. So unless you were somehow physically injured, and direct complications of that injury result in death, you don't really have to worry about esoteric chains of causation such as Spiggot's.

Riki, the ME makes that determination because they're the most appropriate person to do so? They're doctors, and it's a medical question. I also don't understand how anything is obscured. The ME's report contains their full findings. The police, persecutors, and courts more generally DO determine intention, and the ME has no part in that.
posted by kavasa at 11:01 AM on August 9


Interesting.

As for Reagan's wounds causing or exacerbating onset of his Alzheimer's, one of the conspiracy theories floating around in the late 1980's (when Reagan was starting to show signs of cognitive decline) was that the brain scans and MRI's and such that they took after he was shot already showed some issues with his brain and it had been covered up. (I want to say I heard it as part of a Jello Biafra rant, maybe?)
posted by rmd1023 at 11:06 AM on August 9


Lobster, it's a medical determination and not a legal or philosophical one.

Sure, but anytime you're making a determination about what caused something, you're operating based on some definition of what it means to cause something, of what counts as a "cause" in your domain. This is no criticism of the ME, it's unavoidable.

Your example about the pneumonia is a prime example of an edge-case counterfactual. She got pneumonia not because the mugger gave her pneumonia, or because he intended anything related to pneumonia; it was at best a by-product of his actions. So the ME is using a theory of causation that links that kind of by-product to the original act.

I'm just saying, defining 'cause' is a thorny and interesting philosophical problem, and it's one of the philosophical problems that touches the real world in this kind of case, and I always find that to be fun. Just nerding out about metaphysics.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:10 AM on August 9


You guys kill me. ;-)

No, seriously, this is interesting. My feeling is that if the decision doesn't have legal ramifications, then it's kind of moot, no?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:26 AM on August 9


joseph conrad, I linked to a precedent.

you linked to a memorial page - not a coroner's ruling or a court case - it's not a precedent in any legal sense of the word

it's my recollection that there have been legal precedents for this sort of thing but they're rare and i've never heard of one that took 33 years

this guy is a possible suspect in the incident you linked to
posted by pyramid termite at 11:30 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


So if someone shoots you, the bullet goes through and gets embedded in a wall, you are patched up and recover fully, and one day when you're walking by that building there's a workman prying the bullet out of the wall and as the bullet comes free his elbow bumps you and knocks you off the curb and you're hit by a UPS truck and die, did the original shooter murder you?

posted by George_Spiggott at 12:26 on August 9

Mind if I use this as a question for an exam I'm compiling?
posted by Renoroc at 11:49 AM on August 9


Not in the least. There's a complete disconnect between the first victim and the second, of course; sheer coincidence they're the same person. But you knew that.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:07 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


The most famous precedent of this is of course the Garfield assasination where Garfield lived a month after the shooting. Charles Guiteau, at the trial, said that it was Garfield's incompetent doctors who did the actual killing. The general consensus has been that Guiteau was correct, but that Garfield would not have needed doctors, if Guiteau hadn't shot him.
posted by dannyboybell at 12:53 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Why is "homicide" something a medical examiner determines?

Partly because, traditionally, that is part of the role of an ME or coroner?

The determination of cause of death simply opens the path for an investigation; it isn't at all part of the assignation of legal culpability, which is within the purview of the legal system.

So calling it "homicide" doesn't really add anything to the outcome and just obscures the factual conclusion that the GSW was the underlying cause of death.

Well, it is a determination, but again, it simply opens the door for charges to be laid against Hinckley by the DA. I'm not sure why you're having such a problem with this longstanding division of duties in the legal system we have (and inherited from age-old similar structures in England). In some states there still are coroner's juries which have the formal authority and the coroner acts much like a prosecutor acts in calling a grand jury. BTW, I think it's a good thing that we still have these roles separated into different offices with a certain level of transparency.
posted by dhartung at 4:22 PM on August 9


I don't mean to sound combative, dhartung. I'm a software developer; the idea of having roles be separated appropriately is like sweet music.

I'm just genuinely confused by this particular role assignment. "Homicide" refers to the actions of a killer. But the medical examiner did not witness a killing, so it seems inappropriate for him or her to pronounce a homicide. Instead, "death by gunshot wound" is something they would be able to conclusively pronounce, and (with proper separation of roles) the police would be tasked with determining what — and more likely, who — caused that gunshot wound and whether it was intentional.
posted by Riki tiki at 5:22 PM on August 9


Well, you're misunderstanding the meaning of "homicide", then. The medical examiner may determine that a death was a homicide, but that is very different from determining whether a crime was committed. In any event, the ultimate ruling on criminal culpability is down to a judge and jury (if not pleaded out, of course). Part of this is that the role of medical examiner is indeed not just being a morgue technician, but being an officer of the court with the responsibility of making that determination. It is still wholly the realm of the police to investigate any potential criminal aspects of the killing and the prosecutor to lay charges based on that investigation.
posted by dhartung at 5:50 PM on August 9


> Mind if I use this as a question for an exam I'm compiling?
> posted by Renoroc at 11:49 AM on August 9

Wouldn't this make more sense?

The bullet goes through the intended victim, then ricochets upward and lodges itself high in the side of a building. The victim lives their life for a number of years, then happens to be walking by when the bullet breaks free and tumbles downward, hitting the victim in the head and killing him.

Therefore, there's no chance that an external intervening force that may have happened anyway is involved. The bullet is only affected by the initial shot, natural conditions, and ultimately gravity.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 9:51 PM on August 9


yup, swimming naked when the tide goes out has the better exam Q.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:07 AM on August 10


I don't understand if there's no statute of limitations on murder, but if murder is determined 33 years after the fact, why the perpetrator isn't prosecuted.
posted by crossoverman at 7:59 PM on August 10


In this case, it's because a jury already found that Hinckley was insane at the time of the shooting, and that verdict applies to any crime he committed in the course of that shooting.

There's also an old but still in force common-law principle that a person can't be prosecuted for murder if the death happened more than "a year and a day" after the offending act, precisely because of the speculative nature of this sort of determination, although it might not stand up in a high-profile case.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:30 PM on August 10


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