WASHINGTON — Monday’s death of President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary James Brady has been ruled a homicide as a result of the gunshot wound he suffered in the assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981.
The announcement was made by the medical examiner’s office in Virginia, where Brady, 73, died in an Alexandria retirement community, and was confirmed Friday by Gwendolyn Crump, a District of Columbia police department spokeswoman.
There was no immediate word on whether the shooter, John Hinckley Jr., who has been treated at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital since his trial, could face new charges. Hinckley, 59, was found not guilty by reason of insanity after he shot Reagan, Brady and two others on March 30, 1981.
But the decision to pronounce Brady’s death a homicide 33 years after he was wounded outside the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington raises questions about whether prosecutors can, and will, try to get around double jeopardy — the legal concept forbidding a person to be tried twice for the same crime — and pursue a murder charge.
Bill Miller, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office, said Friday that prosecutors are reviewing the ruling and that his office would have ‘‘no further comment at this time.’’
Over the past several years, Hinckley has been granted expanded trips away from St. Elizabeth’s and can now spend as many as 17 days a month with his mother in Williamsburg, Va. His attorney, Barry Levine, said he had not seen the coroner’s report but he felt confident there is nothing for prosecutors to consider.
‘‘The prosecution will face insurmountable legal barriers to any prosecution,’’ he said. ‘‘It ought to be self-evident. Is there any conceivable theory of facts that would differ from the facts that applied to the prosecution in 1982? Is there something new or different other than the fact that Brady died? He was found not guilty of the assault. How could he be found guilty of the more serious charge?’’
Levine said that his client ‘‘has lived his whole life since that event riddled by guilt, and he has the greatest respect for the Bradys and the greatest amount of remorse for what happened. A sensitive public would know that at the time he committed that act, he was ravaged by mental disease.’’
The shooting of Brady three decades ago and the revelation of Hinckley’s mental illness — he told authorities he hoped that assassinating Reagan would impress the actress Jodie Foster — had largely faded from the headlines until Brady’s death this week.
Brady, along with his wife, Sarah, became leading advocates of gun control after the shooting, fighting six years for passage of legislation requiring background checks for handguns bought from federally licensed dealers.
Gail Hoffman, a Brady family spokeswoman, said she could not immediately comment on the decision but said ‘‘Jim had been suffering health issues since the shooting.’’
Prosecutors would face several hurdles if they decide to file new charges against Hinckley, including overcoming possible challenges to the medical examiner’s ruling. Hinckley had been charged on 13 counts, two of them related to Brady’s shooting: assault with intent to kill and a firearms offense.
Thomas Zeno, the former prosecutor who for decades led the government’s efforts to block Hinckley’s requests for more freedom, said he expected his former colleagues to weigh charging Hinckley with Brady’s death. ‘‘They are going to have to look at the legal questions,’’ he said. ‘‘They are going to have to look at the factual questions, if they can really show the direct linkage [between the assault and Brady’s death] beyond a reasonable doubt. And then they are going to have to make the decision about whether it is the right thing to do.’’
Mark MacDougall, a former federal prosecutor, said ‘‘the real hurdle for the government would seem to be proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Hinckley actually caused Mr. Brady’s death 33 years after the shooting.’’
It was not immediately known whether John Hinckley Jr., 59, could face new charges. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity after he shot Reagan and three others on March 30, 1981.
But such cases are becoming more common as advances in medical care help people live longer. In 2007, a Pennsylvania man who had served 16 years for shooting a police officer in 1966 was charged with murder after the officer’s death. A jury acquitted the man.