Politico is not naming the member of the Washington, D.C., Police Department who announced that John Hinkley may face new charges because of the recent death of James Brady, so let me name him: Officer Stu Pid, as in idiot, fool, nitwit, numsbkull, asshat, moron -- need I go on?
Hinkley shot President Ronald Reagan and James Brady, then the president's press secretary, in 1981, in a quite literally insane effort to impress actress Jodi Foster. Hinkley's been cooling his heels in a psychiatric hospital in the District of Columbia ever since. He's unlikely ever to be free from confinement again. He was declared not guilty by reason of insanity.
But that was 33-years ago.
Brady was gravely injured, and was never the same after the shooting.But Hunkley is not guilty of killing him. And he will never be charged with murder. Just where did Officer Stu Pid come up with this swill?
Brady died the other day, and the Virginia Medical Examiner's Office has declared the cause of his death to be a homicide, apparently concluding that but for the injuries sustained in the shooting, Brady would not have died this year. I suspect the medical examiner practiced medicine out of the back of an abandoned hearse before it was determined that he was too dangerous to be trusted among the living and given a job dissecting corpses.
Medical examiners play an important role in the world. They determine cause and manner of death in untimely or suspicious deaths. Their findings are usually key pieces of evidence in trials charging murder, mansalaughter or negligent homicide where cause of death is a vital issue.
Most jurisdictions in the United States follow what is known as the year-and-a-day rule. In such cases, a person is criminally liable for the injuries his behavior causes so long as those injuries occur within 366 days of whatever foul deed he committed. Thus, if you shoot a man on New Year's Day and the victim doesn't die immediately, you can be charged with attempted murder or assault, but not with a murder. If the victim dies before January 2 of the following year, however, you just might be charged with one of the law's forms of homicide. The state would be required to prove, however, that the shooting was a substantial factor causing death.
Causation is a nightmare topic for newbie lawyers. The topic is covered in first-year law school torts classes, the law of personal injury, and in substantive criminal law. What lawyers learn is that not all causes yield legal responsibility. Some causes are simply too remote from the blameworthy act. The law speaks of proximate, or near cause. The year-and-a-day rule recognizes the difficulty of tracing causal chains over time. Nature is opaque, and causation a mystery. In other words, you must proximately cause injury to bear legal responsbility for what you've done.
Thus, in the case of James Baker, his shooting 33 years ago may well have played some role in his death. We can perhaps say that but for the shooting he would not have died. But what other substantial, intervening casuses contribued to his death? What was his cholestrerol level, his inherited genes, his other health risks? Just where would he have been on the mortality tables without the shooting is a matter of mere sepeculation after three decades. Calling the 1981 shooting the cause of his death is sort of like saying that the housing bubble burst in 2008 because Jimmie Hoffie's body has never been found. Who knows, the butterfly effect relays that small things can yield enormous unforeseen consequences. But in the world of common sense and pragmatic judgment that most of us are required to inhabit, only a fool, or a roommate of Hinkley's in the psyche ward, will relate Hoffa's disaapearance and the collapse of the real estate market.
Officer Stu Pid in D.C. ought to remain anonymous for a reason. If he surfaces, he'll never live down the utter stupidity of what he leaked anonymously to Politico. As for Virginia Medical Examiner -- has anyone told him you're not supposed to drink the embalming fluid?