- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

The would-be assassin who almost killed President Reagan is a free man. After four days of weighing various legal and medical opinions, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman decided that John Hinckley Jr. could leave the custody of a mental hospital for unsupervised visits with his parents. For the first time in 21 years, he will be allowed six day-long and two overnight visits, which will be spent in the Washington area. The leniency for this shooter is wrong on many counts.

What naturally comes to mind is how insensitive it is to Hinckley’s victims and their families to allow their assailant back on the streets. On March 30, 1981, he gunned down the president, White House Press Secretary Jim Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and police officer Thomas Delahunty in front of the Washington Hilton. While these men and their loved ones continue to struggle with the physical and psychological consequences of Hinckley’s violence, lawyers and psychiatrists argue that the criminal deserves the chance to have a normal life — a luxury his victims do not have.

The diagnosed psychotic may still pose a danger to the public. Judge Friedman stipulated that Hinckley must stay medicated on his unsupervised visits and must remain in the custody of his parents, and ordered the Hinckleys to return him to the hospital immediately if any signs of trouble emerge. However, it is unlikely that his frail parents, who are in their 80s, will be able to do much if their son loses control. And as Michael Reagan, the son of the 40th president, pointed out, there are no safety guarantees. “As long as he takes his medicine he’s supposed to be OK,” he said. “Well, I don’t want to be around when he doesn’t.” This dangerous man was misdiagnosed before. After the 1981 assassination attempt, a spokesman for the gunman’s parents admitted that he “had been under psychiatric care [but] the evaluations did not alert anyone to the seriousness of the condition.”

At the end of the day, the Hinckley case isn’t only about medicine or his brain but about the law. As Judge Friedman made clear, he ruled on the statutes on the books, which hold that a patient is entitled to limited release if experts conclude that he is no longer a threat — which they have done. The problem with this is that Hinckley is not just any mental patient in custody for any violent act. In trying to kill the president, he had the potential to decapitate the U.S. government. For national security reasons, the law should categorically exclude from eligibility for limited release anyone who assassinates or attempts to assassinate the president — whether he is found to be insane or not. Such a law should be passed promptly when Congress returns in January.

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