Articles > People & Politics
Free John Hinckley
Thirty years ago, he shot President Ronald Reagan to show his love for Jodie Foster. A jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity, and ever since he has lived at DC’s St. Elizabeths Hospital. Now doctors say he’s healed and the law says it’s time to let him go.
What was John Hinckley thinking when he woke up on the morning of March 30, 1981, in downtown DC at the Park Central Hotel?
The 25-year-old son of a wealthy oil executive was exhausted, aimless, and volatile. He had been ricocheting around the country, from Los Angeles to his parents’ place outside Denver to Nashville to New Haven. He had arrived in Washington the previous afternoon after a cross-country bus trip and hadn’t slept much.
In the previous months, Hinckley had contemplated suicide and gotten arrested for carrying guns. He had considered assassinating a President—first Jimmy Carter, then Ronald Reagan. One of his two suitcases held a box of Devastator bullets; another held a .22-caliber revolver.
He woke up hungry that Monday. Around 9 AM, he wandered into a McDonald’s on K Street and wolfed down an Egg McMuffin. Heading back to the hotel, he bought a copy of the Washington Star, the city’s afternoon paper. An item on A4 caught his eye: the President’s schedule.
He decided how he’d spend the day: He would try to kill President Reagan at the Washington Hilton.
Hinckley sat down to write a letter.
“Dear Jodie,” he began. “There is a definite probability that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan.”
For four years, Hinckley had been trying to win Jodie Foster’s heart. He had seen the actress in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver and decided they were meant for each other. He had called her, visited her dorm at Yale, sent her letters.
“Jodie,” he continued, “I would abandon the idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you… . I will admit to you that the reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you.”
And finally: “I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love.”
He signed the letter, loaded the pistol, and headed to the Washington Hilton.
Ronald Reagan arrived at the Hilton around 2 PM and gave a speech to a union convention. When the President left the hotel and walked to his limousine, Hinckley was among 30 people behind the rope line a few yards away.
“President Reagan! President Reagan!” a voice yelled. Reagan turned toward Hinckley.
Hinckley reached into his right pocket, pulled out the pistol, gripped it with both hands, crouched, and pulled the trigger six times.
The first shot hit White House press secretary James Brady in the head. The second struck DC police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back. The third sailed over Reagan’s head. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy took the fourth in his chest. The fifth hit the bulletproof glass of Reagan’s limousine.
Hinckley’s sixth bullet struck the top of the limo’s rear door and ricocheted into the car. It hit Reagan under his armpit and then barely missed his aorta. Jerry Parr, the lead Secret Service agent that day, had shoved Reagan into the limo when he heard the first pop. He didn’t know Reagan had been hit. But within seconds, as they sped down Connecticut Avenue toward the White House, Parr saw the President spitting up blood. The agent diverted the driver to George Washington University Hospital.
• • •
In Hinckley’s hotel room, police found boxes of bullets, a few books, his poems and writings, an array of nonprescription and prescription drugs, and his last letter to Jodie Foster. They also found a postcard with a photo of the President and First Lady. On the back Hinckley had written a note to Foster: “Don’t they make a darling couple? Nancy is downright sexy. One day you and I will occupy the White House and the peasants will drool with envy.”
All of the items were entered into evidence and used by Hinckley’s lawyers to argue that he was insanely delusional. His trial in US District Court on Constitution Avenue began on May 4, 1982, 13 months after the shooting. The government charged Hinckley with 13 crimes, including malicious wounding and attempted assassination.
The case turned on two questions: Was Hinckley crazy, or was he smart enough to pretend to be crazy? And should he go to jail or to a mental hospital?
At the end of the seven-week trial, the jury agreed with defense lawyers and their medical experts that Hinckley was insane when he shot Reagan and therefore not criminally responsible for the act. Hinckley never served a day in jail after the trial. He has spent the last 30 years at St. Elizabeths Hospital, on the bluffs across the Anacostia River, with sweeping views of the nation’s capital.
Except for court appearances and one Christmas dinner in 1986, he didn’t leave St. Elizabeths for the next 17 years.
But Hinckley’s medical teams have said for years that the mental disease that caused him to hunt down a President is “in remission.” Decades of medication and therapy have cleared his psychotic tendencies and delusions, they say. In other words, Hinckley is well enough to live in society and no longer a danger to himself and others.
Since 2005, he has been on a program of monitored releases with his family. The trips away from St. Elizabeths started with visits to DC to bowl or to see a movie. Hinckley progressed to visiting his family on holidays, then for days at a time. Federal courts now allow him to spend nearly a third of the year with his mother in Williamsburg.
Doctors at St. Elizabeths want to increase Hinckley’s time away from the hospital. Their plan would start by expanding his visits to Williamsburg, so he’d be there more than at St. Elizabeths. Within two years, he could be discharged into what’s called convalescent leave.
“He’s on that trajectory,” says Richard Bonnie, a University of Virginia law professor who has studied and written about Hinckley’s case. “If he continues to adhere to the conditions of his current release program, one can reasonably expect that—sooner rather than later—he will transition to a community setting.”
Lawrence Coffey was 22 when he served as foreman of the jury that acquitted Hinckley in 1982. Now 51, he lives in suburban Maryland. Does he think Hinckley should be freed?
“Why not?” he says. “You have people who actually committed murder who serve their time and are out on the street. I don’t see why he’s still confined. He’s not a threat.”
John Hinckley is barred from speaking to the press. Psychiatrists originally diagnosed him with a narcissistic disorder, and talking to the media, even to describe his efforts to get well, might confirm that he still seeks attention. Neither his mother, Jo Ann, nor his siblings, Scott Hinckley and Diane Sims, would comment for this article, out of concern that doing so could help government lawyers argue against his release.
Prosecutors also declined to be interviewed, but their positions are clear in the public record. They have opposed any freedoms for Hinckley, which puts them in this paradoxical position: In the original trial, prosecutors argued that Hinckley was sane and responsible for his actions and should go to jail; now they argue he’s insane and should not be released from the mental-health system.
“There is no request we make they do not oppose with great vigor,” says Hinckley’s longtime attorney, Barry Levine. A lawyer with Dickstein Shapiro, Levine has rarely spoken on the case out of court.
“People who struggle with mental disease can get well,” he says. “When the mental-health professionals unanimously agreed that the illness that caused John to do those unimaginable acts was no longer detectable, gradual release was not only the right cause but the just cause. It is also required by law.”
Levine will argue that point later this year before US District judge Paul L. Friedman. The third federal judge to sit on the case, Friedman took over in 2003 and has scheduled an evidentiary hearing for November 28. Doctors at St. Elizabeths are expected to advocate for Hinckley’s release; the government’s experts and lawyers will oppose.
Which should prevail—the belief that anyone who tries to kill a President should never be free? Or a judicial system that rests on laws that spell out pathways to wellness and freedom for people deemed mentally ill when they commit violent acts?
• • •
Hinckley was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, midway between Oklahoma City and Dallas, in 1955. He was the youngest of three, with an older brother, Scott, and sister, Diane. His father, John Sr., was in the energy business. His mother, Jo Ann, ran the household.
When he was four, the family moved to Dallas. In elementary school, young John quarterbacked the football team and played basketball. The Beatles came to the United States when he was eight and he became a fan.
John Sr.’s business thrived, and the family moved to Dallas’s Highland Park suburb. The Hinckleys had a pool and a Coca-Cola machine. John Jr. managed the junior-high football team and learned to play guitar. In 1973, after he graduated from high school, the Hinckleys moved to Evergreen, Colorado, a wealthy enclave outside Denver.
Hinckley enrolled in Texas Tech in Lubbock, finished his freshman year, and moved to Dallas for the summer, first with his sister and then on his own. “I stayed by myself in my apartment and dreamed of future glory in some undefined field, perhaps music or politics,” he wrote in an autobiography composed for a psychiatrist.
When he returned to Texas Tech for his second year, he was assigned a black roommate. “My naive, race-mixed ideology was forever laid to rest,” he later wrote.
In The Insanity Defense and the Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr., his definitive 1984 book on Hinckley’s trial, Lincoln Caplan called Hinckley’s screed “an essay about his drift from Middle-American tolerance to a witch’s brew of hatreds.”
Hinckley moved to an off-campus apartment, dropped out of college in the spring of 1976, and flew to Los Angeles. It was the start of four years of drifting. He fancied himself a songwriter and tried to sell songs. He dropped out of contact with his family for weeks.
“Through a series of sorry circumstances, I am in trouble,” he wrote to his parents in June. “For the past 2½ weeks I have literally been without food, shelter & clothing. On May 14, someone broke into my room and stole almost all of my possessions.”
His parents sent money. Hinckley bounced from LA to Denver to Lubbock. He became interested in the American Nazis. “By the summer of 1978,” he later wrote, “at the age of 23, I was an all-out anti-Semite and white racialist.”
Hinckley moved back to Lubbock in early 1979 and started to buy guns. He moved three times from January to November, bringing the number of places he had lived since high school to 17, according to Caplan.
Hinckley had his first anxiety attack in 1980. A photo taken around that time shows him holding a gun to his head. He started to report physical ailments—hearing problems, dizziness, fatigue. A doctor prescribed an antidepressant, Surmontil, and then Valium. “My nervous system is about shot,” he wrote to his sister, Diane.
In May 1980, People magazine reported that Jodie Foster was enrolling at Yale. Hinckley started planning to court her in New Haven.
When he had first gone to LA four years earlier, he had seen Taxi Driver 15 times at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater. The movie starred Robert De Niro, playing a violent cab driver named Travis Bickle, who falls in love with a woman named Betsy, an aide to a presidential candidate. When Betsy rejects him, Bickle tries but fails to assassinate the candidate. He then tries to rescue Iris, a prostitute played by Jodie Foster. Eventually, Travis Bickle is seen as a hero for saving Iris.
Hinckley told his parents he was going to Yale to study writing and convinced them to subsidize him. In September, he traveled to New Haven, not to write but to win Foster’s heart. He left letters and poems in her mailbox and had two awkward phone conversations with her; he recorded both.
In his last phone call to Foster’s dorm, he heard laughing in the background.
“What are they laughing at?” he asked.
“They’re laughing at you.”
“Seriously,” she said, “do me a favor and don’t call back.”
Hinckley flew to Lubbock and bought two more .22-caliber handguns, bringing his arsenal to three handguns and two rifles. He stalked President Carter in Washington and Ohio but never attempted to harm him. He traveled to New Haven and left more notes for Foster. He flew to Nashville, where Carter was speaking. Security staff at the airport confiscated his handguns and arrested him but let him go.
Broke again, Hinckley returned to his parents and went into therapy, but he didn’t fully reveal to the psychiatrist his feelings about Foster. Starting in November 1980, Hinckley bounced among New York, New Haven, DC, and Denver, where he tape-recorded a monologue saying that he was on the road to “insanity” and threatening “suicide city” if Foster continued to spurn him.
In March 1981, Hinckley went to New Haven and left the last note for Foster. “Just wait,” it read, “I’ll rescue you very soon. Please cooperate.”
Then he ran out of money and tried to go home. His parents had made him agree that he’d be on his own after the last cash infusion. His father paid for his flight to Denver but told him to take a room at the YMCA. Hinckley sold some guns to raise money for a final trip to Hollywood to sell songs.
He failed and boarded a bus to Washington.
• • •
In the courtroom in May 1982, Hinckley sat at the defense table every day wearing either a tan suit or a blue blazer with gray slacks.
“When not lost in thought,” Lincoln Caplan wrote, “rubbing his forehead with both hands, he was visibly bored, wary, or faintly amused, smiling out of the side of his mouth. When he glanced at the gallery, his eyes rolled to the tops of their sockets and, against the fields of white, his pupils were small, dark, and opaque.”
Early in the trial before Judge Barrington Parker, Hinckley’s mother, Jo Ann, took the stand. She read a letter from her son from the previous March: “Dear Mom and Dad: Your prodigal son has left again to exorcise some demons.”
She recalled driving her son to the airport on March 25, 1981, after she and her husband had barred him from the house. “It was so hard to see John go,” she said, “because I felt in my mind that once again John might be leaving, and maybe he might try to take his own life.”
She sobbed when her husband, John Hinckley Sr., testified that he had told their son he was no longer welcome, saying “Okay, you are on your own. Do whatever you want to.”
“In looking back on that,” the elder Hinckley said, “I’m sure that was the greatest mistake in my life. I am the cause of John’s tragedy.”
The prosecution and the defense agreed that Hinckley had mental problems; the question was to what degree. Was he merely neurotic? Or was he delusional and therefore not responsible for his actions, no matter how heinous?
If a man suffers from delusions, he has fantasies with no relation to reality. He might see things that aren’t there, hear voices, believe people are chasing him—or that he can win the love of a movie star by killing a President. A neurosis is a less severe emotional disorder; it can manifest itself as high anxiety or fear of flying or the belief that one is the center of the world, as in narcissism.
Two of the best witnesses for the government were the maids at the hotels where Hinckley had stayed in March 1981.
He seemed “just a normal all-American-type boy to me,” said the maid at the hotel where he stayed for two weeks. He never mentioned Jodie Foster, guns, or assassination.
The maid at the Park Central Hotel in Washington who saw him just before he went to the Hilton said he “looked calm.”
But it was testimony by psychiatrists about Hinckley’s inner distress that convinced the jury. The expert witnesses drew their conclusions by interviewing Hinckley, poring over his writings, studying his wanderings, his interactions with Jodie Foster, his gun purchases, his planning.
William Carpenter, a tall psychiatrist with a silver beard and shoulder-length hair, was Hinckley’s star witness. He “resembled Father Time,” Caplan wrote.
Vincent Fuller, Hinckley’s lead attorney, asked him to describe his client’s mental disease. After a long explanation, Dr. Carpenter said, “I did conclude that he had developed delusions.”
Carpenter said Hinckley wanted to “gain [Foster’s] attention and affection” and that if he tried to assassinate Reagan he would be “sacrificing his own life or his own freedom” to “finally gain her respect and love.”
Chief prosecutor Roger Adelman asked his principal expert witness, Park Dietz, if Hinckley had delusions or “fixed beliefs” about Foster. Dietz saw no evidence of delusion and said Hinckley’s interest in the actress “took a perfectly normal course.”
“He had seen her in movies. He saw her on television. He saw more of her movies. He became interested in her through that medium, and this is the first time he had become interested that way in a movie star.”
Hinckley had told Dietz that he knew what he was up against.
“He speculated that he knew all along that it wasn’t going to work out,” Dietz testified, “and that even when he went to New Haven, intending to introduce himself to her, he knew it wouldn’t work.”
“Did he have a fixed false belief?” Adelman asked.
Dietz said Hinckley had unrealistic hopes: “That is called being a dreamer.”
In his closing arguments, Adelman said Hinckley led an ordinary American life: “The parents loved him; there is no question about that. A brother and sister, who he respected and admired, even envied. These people didn’t offer any evidence that he suffered a serious mental disorder.”
True, Hinckley had problems and was sad and lonely. Who isn’t at times?
Defense lawyer Vincent Fuller belittled Adelman’s assessment of Hinckley as an all-American boy: “This defendant is unique in this sense: He lived a solitary life. He was a prisoner of himself for at least seven years before this tragedy … but to call him an ordinary boy, an ordinary man, an all-American boy, is silly.”
Fuller continued for the better part of a day, and for most of that time Hinckley seemed unfazed. Then Fuller focused the jury on his fascination with Foster: “To what end?” the lawyer asked. “To gain the love and admiration and establish a relationship with a woman. It’s delusional thinking. That’s all it is, pure and simple. It’s pathetic, but it’s delusional.”
• • •
The 12 jurors weren’t allowed to take notes during the proceedings, to read news of the trial, or to discuss it with one another or anyone else.
Among the jurors were a custodian, a secretary, a supply specialist, a shop mechanic, a garage attendant, and a research assistant. Two were retired. All but one were African-American. Average age 39. The foreman, Lawrence Coffey, was the youngest at 22.
“Nobody else was interested in being foreman,” Coffey says. He had grown up on Capitol Hill and graduated from Anacostia High School. He was a banquet worker at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City.
Before the jury left the court for deliberations, Judge Parker offered a key instruction: If they found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity, “it becomes the duty of the court to commit him to St. Elizabeths Hospital.”
And: “The defendant will remain in custody and will be entitled to release from custody only if the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that he is not likely to injure himself or other persons due to a mental illness.”
The jury began deliberations on Friday afternoon, June 18.
“The trial wasn’t about whether John Hinckley shot the President,” Coffey says. “Of course he did that. We saw it on film. The trial was about insanity. You had to be crazy to shoot the President.”
At 6:20 Monday evening, the jurors sent a note to Parker saying that they had reached a decision. The lawyers and the Hinckleys and the gallery quickly assembled. Parker asked Hinckley to stand. Then Lawrence Coffey gave the judge the written verdict.
“As to count one,” Parker read, “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
And 12 more times.
Coffey knew that the jury’s decision would anger many Americans. “I was terrified,” he says. “I still am, right up to this day.”
The verdict provoked “a cascade of public outrage,” according to the New York Times. Congress held hearings and changed the law to tighten insanity-defense standards.
Hinckley was immediately confined to the maximum-security John Howard Pavilion at St. Elizabeths. The hospital barred him from making phone calls or walking the grounds, but he could write letters.
“The shooting outside the Washington Hilton hotel was the greatest love offering in the history of the world,” he wrote to the New York Times. “At one time Miss Foster was a star and I was the insignificant fan. Now everything is changed. I am Napoleon and she is Josephine. I am Romeo and she is Juliet.”
In a hearing on October 4, 1984, Hinckley asked Judge Parker to allow media interviews and occasional walks on the grounds with a staff member.
“At the height of my despair on February 13, 1983, I attempted suicide and, thank God, I failed,” he testified.
“I overcame the obsession with Jodie Foster through intense therapy, medication, and a lot of love from the people around me,” he said. “I now cherish my life and believe everyone’s life is sacred and precious. I will never again harm another human being.”
The government opposed all requests. Judge Parker sided with the government.
By 1986, the hospital staff reported that Hinckley was no longer psychotic or depressive but still had “a serious narcissistic personality disorder.” Hinckley wrote reams of letters to reporters and compared himself to Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Still, the hospital permitted a supervised, 12-hour visit with his family off of St. Elizabeths grounds in 1986.
Psychiatrists at St. Elizabeths then supported Hinckley’s request for an unsupervised visit with his family for Easter 1987. They said he was no longer required to take antipsychotic medication, was permitted to walk the grounds unaccompanied to his work assignments, and had developed a healthy relationship with Leslie deVeau, a fellow patient.
The request came before Parker in open court. Prosecutors introduced a 1982 letter from Hinckley to a friend asking her to mail him a pistol so he could escape. He also suggested she go to New Haven and kill Jodie Foster. At the hearing, Hinckley’s psychiatrist, Glenn Miller, mentioned Hinckley’s correspondence with Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. Hinckley had asked her for Charles Manson’s address. He also corresponded with Ted Bundy, who was on death row for serial murders.
Parker ordered a search of Hinckley’s room. Miller had said Hinckley had been free of his obsession with Foster for three years, but the search turned up 57 photos of the actress.
The hospital withdrew its support for Hinckley’s off-campus visit and agreed to alert the government each time he left the grounds on short, supervised releases.
In 1987 Hinckley was locked down for the next decade.
He tried again to be granted unsupervised release in 1997 for short visits with his parents once a month. A new federal judge, June Green, denied his request, in part because Jeanette Wick, the hospital’s chief pharmacist, testified that Hinckley had been stalking her.
It wasn’t until 1999, 17 years after the trial, that Hinckley won a legal victory. A DC Court of Appeals ruling opened the way for him to accompany hospital staff on short visits into the District for shopping and recreation.
Over the next few years, Hinckley visited DC with hospital staff 200 times without incident.
• • •
Hinckley met Leslie deVeau as a patient at St. Elizabeths. They shared a love of books, took daily walks, and often ate lunch together.
DeVeau, a trained social worker, is 12 years older than Hinckley. She was at the mental hospital because she had shot and killed her ten-year-old daughter in 1982. She then tried to commit suicide by shooting herself in the shoulder. Her left arm had to be amputated. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, a jury agreed she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and she entered St. Elizabeths.
They met at a Halloween dance.
“I had been there long enough to be very lonely,” deVeau told New Yorker writer Elsa Walsh for a 1999 article. “He sat down and I didn’t stop talking.”
DeVeau was deemed healed and was discharged after four years, but she returned to work with outpatients and see Hinckley. Over more than a decade, they established a stable relationship, visiting at the hospital and talking many times a day by phone. Hinckley cared for feral cats on the St. Elizabeth grounds; deVeau dropped off cat food once a week.
They exchanged rings. Hinckley asked her to marry him, and she accepted, though both realized it wasn’t for real. Still, their romance was the longest and most meaningful of Hinckley’s life. His mother said Leslie “handles so many of John’s problems. She’s just been our angel.”
But the relationship began to unravel around 2000. Hinckley became interested in other women, especially the hospital pharmacist. DeVeau also tired of the interviews she had to endure with Hinckley’s therapists.
Government experts argued at a 2004 hearing that the change in the relationship might trigger a relapse. Therapists and psychiatrists at the hospital agreed.
Judge Paul Friedman had taken over the Hinckley case when Judge Green died. Green had denied every request for unsupervised visits with Hinckley’s family; Friedman had allowed unsupervised day visits with his family in the Washington area in 2003 and 2004.
Friedman and doctors presented Hinckley, then 48, with a choice: End his relationship with deVeau and start unsupervised visits with his family or keep deVeau and jeopardize the releases.
When deVeau came to visit on January 15, 2005, Hinckley returned the ring she had given him.
What experts wanted to see was whether Hinckley was still obsessive about women. Could he make a rational decision and trade love for freedom? He passed.
But was Hinckley still obsessed with Jodie Foster? Psychiatrists examined each relationship he’d had, and he’d had more than a few. His girlfriends are identified in clinical and judicial records only as Ms. G or Ms. M. Prosecutors accused him of “stockpiling women.” Therapists interviewed each and dissected the relationships in detailed reports. And the women called things off.
One girlfriend, for whom he wrote a song and painted a portrait, asked him about Jodie Foster. He said it had ended long ago.
“I was crazy,” he told her.
• • •
Judge Friedman has continued to set Hinckley free in stages. A 2005 ruling spells out his approach.
Hinckley, Friedman noted, has never tried to escape during hundreds of outings into DC with hospital staff or on unsupervised visits with his parents. “He has followed every condition imposed by the Court in authorizing these visits,” Friedman wrote. “These visits have been therapeutic and beneficial.
“On the ultimate mixed questions of law and fact, dangerousness, the Court finds that, given the testimony by the Hospital and government experts, Mr. Hinckley will not be a danger to himself or others.”
Friedman based his conclusions on Hinckley’s behavior and on testimony by doctors that his psychosis was “in full remission.”
But Hinckley still has a narcissistic disorder, his therapists say. It requires control and vigilance, both of which Friedman has applied in strong measure.
Friedman’s last major ruling, in July 2009, allowed Hinckley to spend ten days in Williamsburg on 12 occasions with a long list of conditions, including that his mother be by his side at all times except for two hours twice a day before dark. When he’s unaccompanied, he must carry a GPS-enabled cell phone.
Friedman also permitted Hinckley to get a driver’s license, with conditions: He can’t drive within 50 miles of DC unless he’s going to or from Williamsburg.
That requirement might have been an effort on Judge Friedman’s behalf to mollify the Secret Service.
No one from the agency would comment on Hinckley, but a former Reagan aide who worked closely with the Secret Service says, “There’s something symbolic here that goes to the service’s code of honor. If you try to kill the President, you are never going to walk the street again.”
Hinckley’s lawyer, Barry Levine, understands what he’s up against.
“The Secret Service has been invited by us to shadow John Hinckley whenever and wherever they wish,” he says. “They are unfettered. We have no objection.”
From time to time, Levine says, Secret Service agents show up at the Hinckley home in Williamsburg.
At St. Elizabeths, Hinckley recently moved into a new building that offers spacious rooms and an enclosed courtyard. He’s pretty much free to walk the campus, compose songs on his guitar, feed his cats. He works at the hospital’s library every morning and cares for the small garden in front. He attends counseling sessions with at least four therapists.
In Williamsburg, Hinckley’s mother lives in Kingsmill, a 2,900-acre resort community. It has three golf courses, a yacht club, and a spa.
Clinical records from 2007 describe one weekend visit to Kingsmill. Hinckley cooked breakfast and took a walk to the marina. His brother, Scott, was visiting from Dallas; the two talked about opening an investment account and worked up a model portfolio.
In Kingsmill, he took guitar lessons and bought a new guitar, an electric Fender Stratocaster. He considered putting his music on RedFizz.com, a Web site where songwriters can get feedback. His sister, Diane, came in from Dallas. He went bowling with her and Scott. He got a massage.
John Hinckley Sr. started to fail in 2007. John Jr. helped move his father to an assisted-living facility. When his father died in January 2008, Hinckley sat next to his mother at the Presbyterian church. He stood next to her in the reception line and shook hands with well-wishers.
But things haven’t always gone so smoothly in Williamsburg. Judge Friedman allowed Hinckley to get a volunteer job, but the Humane Society, the Salvation Army, and other groups turned him down.
• • •
Hinckley will never be a sympathetic character. He’ll always be the man who tried to kill a President. While Tim McCarthy recovered, Thomas Delahanty had permanent nerve damage; James Brady suffered brain damage and permanent paralysis.
It’s safe to say that most Americans would not want to see Hinckley freed. President Reagan’s family is united on the matter.
“I am the last person who would want to give John Hinckley any freedom,” says Ron Reagan, the President’s youngest child. “I am past the phase where I wanted to beat him to death with my bare hands.
“You’re talking about someone who attempted the decapitation of the state,” says Reagan, 53. “It’s a crime of such gravity, it must be treated differently. If you make that attempt, you should die or spend the rest of your life behind bars.”
Nancy Reagan just turned 90 and lives in Bel Air, California. Friends say she’s well. She declined to talk about Hinckley. Her son says: “I’m 99.9 percent sure my mother is not interested in seeing John Hinckley wandering around.”
The most generous assessment came from President Reagan, who referred to Hinckley as “a mixed-up young man from a fine family.”
Now Judge Barrington Parker’s 1982 instructions to the jury, on whether Hinckley is a danger to himself or the public, are all that stand between confinement and release. When the case comes before Judge Friedman on November 28, Levine and federal prosecutors will battle once again.
Levine took Hinckley on as a client in 1990 at the request of Charles Colson, an aide to President Richard Nixon who went to jail as a result of the Watergate investigation, then founded a Christian prison ministry. Levine argues that Hinckley is a changed man.
“When people get well, they acquire insights,” Levine says. “John is horrified by his acts. There’s nothing he can do to take it back. There will be no relief for his entire life. This is part of the pain of getting well.”
Barring evidence that Hinckley is backsliding, Judge Friedman is likely to grant more unsupervised releases to Williamsburg. Hinckley’s treatment team at St. Elizabeths has prepared a report that recommends unsupervised release for more than half the year, according to sources who read the report. The report also recommends “convalescent leave” within a year, meaning he’d be free, with some restrictions. It is a step short of unconditional release.
Prosecutors are expected to argue against expanded release in a September 30 brief.
“Can you basically take him off the leash altogether?” asks Richard Bonnie. “I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. Having a structure in place gives the court and society the assurance they need.
“And,” he says, “regardless of how the legal system proceeds, you can rest assured John Hinckley will be on the Secret Service’s screen for as long as he lives.”
Hinckley’s mother, 85, is well now, but what happens when she can no longer be his principal monitor for the court? His brother and sister have agreed to care for him. Would he move to Dallas, where they reside?
At the 2008 hearing, Judge Friedman asked Scott Hinckley: “And what does the future look like if John had more and more privileges and more and more time away from the hospital, and particularly as your mother gets older?”
Scott said, “I know my sister and I have had a number of conversations, and I think we are both in agreement that we would help provide whatever we could in the way of shelter and living arrangements for him. We would certainly try to be there as often as we could, but I don’t think either one of us at this point envisions being there full-time.”
By “there,” he means Williamsburg, where John Hinckley is most likely to live once he leaves St. Elizabeths.
If Hinckley is permitted to wander freely, he might become a target for people angry that Ronald Reagan’s assailant isn’t in custody. Might he become the hunted rather than the hunter? Would his narcissism encourage him to tell his story to Vanity Fair? Would people accost him on the street?
“If he’s let out without recourse to guardians and shelter, he’s stepping into a nightmare,” says mental-illness and threat-assessment expert Barry Spodak, who served as a clinician at St. Elizabeths during Hinckley’s confinement. “Of course, he doesn’t know this. There’s no good outcome here. His life has been ruined.”
When at St. Elizabeths, Hinckley spends his days reading newspapers and magazines, talking to patients and staff, playing guitar, shopping at Martin’s, a carryout on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, “like a kid on perpetual spring break,” the Washington Post wrote last year. In Kingsmill, he’s free to drive around and eat at restaurants. But he’s still under the supervision of mental-health professionals and the courts.
“John wants to be his own man,” says Barry Levine, “and control his own destiny.”
Unless Judge Friedman changes direction, Hinckley is destined to be free. Under the law, it seems the only course.
This article appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.
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