News & Politics

Murder Charges Doubtful for John Hinckley Jr.

The would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan can now spend 17 days a month outside the mental hospital where he resides.

It’s possible that John Hinckley Jr. was not confined to St. Elizabeths Psychiatric Hospital when a Virginia medical examiner ruled that former White House press secretary James Brady’s death last week was a homicide. Hinckley could have been at his mother’s gated community in Williamsburg.

Hinckley shot Brady in an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan survived, but Brady suffered brain damage. A jury ruled in 1982 that Hinckley was not guilty by reason of insanity on 13 charges, including attempted assassination. He’s spent most of the past 33 years at St. Elizabeths, on a hill in Southeast DC overlooking the city. [For more on Hinckley’s case, read the October 2011 feature “Free John Hinckley.”]

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have been battling over Hinckley’s status before US District Judge Paul L. Friedman for more than a decade. Hinckley’s lawyers argue that he is recovering from the mental illness and should be allowed to live outside St. Elizabeths; prosecutors are adamant that he should remain confined.

Hinckley’s defense attorneys have been gaining ground. Last December, Friedman ruled that Hinckley, 59, can spend 17 days a month in his mother’s community. He is under supervision and must stay in close touch with St. Elizabeths and wear a GPS device when he’s alone or unsupervised. Defense attorneys had asked for 24 days away from the hospital, leading up to complete freedom.

Prosecutors continue to argue that Hinckley is a danger to himself and others, that he’s deceptive and capable of slipping away.

Last week’s ruling by a Virginia medical examiner does open the possibility that prosecutors could try Hinckley for murder, but that seems like a long shot. The US Attorney’s office in DC is “reviewing the ruling on the death of Mr. Brady.” Among the 13 counts in the 1982 case were charges that related to the shooting of Brady, so prosecutors would face an uphill battle to try Hinckley again.

DC mental health officials said Hinckley’s daily schedule is under court seal.

Find Harry Jaffe on Twitter at @harryjaffe