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.”
Next: The jury rules Hinckley insane