A federal judge on Wednesday ordered that John Hinckley Jr. is no longer a danger 35 years after he tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, and can be granted full-time release from the Southeast Washington psychiatric hospital where he has been treated for the last three decades. The decision that prompted outrage from some Reagan supporters and calls for forgiveness from others.
Mr. Hinckley can begin a “convalescent leave” from St. Elizabeths Hospital beginning Aug. 5 and reside full time at his aging mother’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman wrote in an order.
The 61-year-old was committed to the hospital after being judged not guilty by reason of insanity to the 1981 shooting, in which he injured the president and three other men in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster.
The decision caps a series of incremental rulings issued over the last 12 years that have gradually allowed Mr. Hinckley more freedom and extended the amount of time he has been able to spend away from the hospital at his mother’s home.
Judge Friedman noted that “all of the experts and treatment providers” who testified during a recent court hearing agreed that Mr. Hinckley’s depression and psychotic disorder have been in remission for most of the 34 years he has been treated at the facility.
“During this long period of sustained remission — more than 27 years, in the Court’s view — Mr. Hinckley, by all accounts has shown no signs of psychotic symptoms, delusional thinking, or any violent tendencies,” the judge wrote in a 103-page order that outlined numerous requirements for the release. “Mr. Hinckley is clinically ready for full-time convalescent leave.”
Not everyone agreed with the judge’s assessment.
“When my father was lying in a hospital bed recovering from the gunshots that nearly killed him, he said, ‘I know my ability to heal depends on my willingness to forgive John Hinckley.’ I too believe in forgiveness,” Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said in a statement posted on her website. “But forgiving someone in your heart doesn’t meant that you let them loose in Virginia to pursue whatever dark agendas they may still hold dear.”
Mr. Hinckley shot and wounded Reagan, Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, D.C. police Officer Thomas Delahanty and White House press secretary James Brady on March 30, 1981, in front of the Washington Hilton Hotel in the District.
Paralyzed and restricted to a wheelchair for years after, Brady and his wife, Sarah, became fervent gun control advocates.
When Brady died in 2014, the medical examiner deemed his death a homicide, but prosecutors declined to pursue charges, in part because attorneys were barred from arguing that the shooter was sane at the time of the attack and because D.C. law at the time precluded homicide charges from being brought if a victim died more than a year after an injury.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence did not take a stance on the judge’s decision, but instead railed against gun laws in Virginia that the organization believes to be too lax.
“We may all feel differently about releasing back into society a man who tried to kill the president of the United States and permanently disabled James Brady. But virtually all Americans should be outraged that it will be just as easy for Jim’s would-be killer to buy a gun today as it was 35 years ago,” Brady Campaign President Dan Gross said in a statement highlighting that background checks are still not required for all gun sales in Virginia. “There is nothing stopping any dangerous person from going to a gun show or online to buy any gun he wants and then committing the next act of political terror.”
Mr. Hinckley had delusions involving the movie “Taxi Driver” and of using the shooting to impress Miss Foster, who starred in the movie with Robert De Niro. After pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, he was committed to St. Elizabeths for mental health treatment. During the last 10 years, his progress has led doctors to permit him to leave the hospital for multiple days at least 80 times over the last 10 years, according to the court order.
Despite spending a frequent amount of time outside the hospital in recent years, both Reagan’s biographer and the Reagan presidential library were critical of the decision to let Mr. Hinckley out full time.
“Contrary to the judge’s decision, we believe John Hinckley is still a threat to others and we strongly oppose his release,” read a statement issued by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.
Biographer Craig Shirley blasted Judge Friedman, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, for issuing “a purely political decision.”
“No matter how much supervision he has, John Hinckley cannot be trusted to move and function in society,” Mr. Shirley wrote on Facebook. “Even though his victims, President Ronald Reagan and White House Press Secretary James Brady have passed on, Mr. Hinckley remains a threat … Hinckley’s actions remain a terrible stain on American history and a reminder of the lifetime of damage that can be caused by one man in a matter of seconds.”
Meanwhile Reagan’s son, Michael, took a more compassionate stance.
“My father did more than say the Lords Prayer. He lived it in forgiving John Hinkley Jr. Maybe we should do the same,” he wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
Mr. Hinckley’s attorney, Barry Levine, said his client recognizes that his actions were “horrific” but that what he did “was not an act of evil.”
“It was an act caused by mental illness, an illness from which he no longer suffers,” Mr. Levine said.
He went on to say that the success of the gradual steps to treat Mr. Hinckley and to increase his liberties outside of the hospital, “should give great comfort to a concerned citizenry that the mental health system and the judicial system worked and worked well.”
Mr. Hinckley will still be subject to conditions of release that will limit his travel and actions.
Under the release conditions, Mr. Hinckley will move into his 90-year-old mother’s home for a year and will be allowed to live on his own in the Williamsburg area after that. He will still be subject to monitoring by authorities and a host of other conditions that if violated could lead to his rehospitalization.
Conditions include the requirement that he either work or volunteer three days a week, he stay within a 30-mile radius of Williamsburg unless traveling to Washington, D.C., for treatment or on a trip outside the area that has been approved by his treatment team, he keep a daily log of his activities, a ban on speaking to the media, and limits on his internet usage — including a ban on creating social media accounts or accessing websites that have information on any of his “crimes or his victims, weapons or hardcore pornography.”
The court also ordered that for at least the first year, Mr. Hinckley be required to carry a GPS-enabled cell phone for the purpose of allowing officials to monitor his whereabouts when he is traveling while unaccompanied. The court noted that while Mr. Hinckley has been required to carry a GPS-enabled cell phone in the past while out of the hospital, the government has never sought to collect data from the phone.
The ruling indicates that Mr. Hinckley has an interest in anonymously publishing his artwork, including paintings and photography, and in publishing his music online through YouTube. The court ordered that before allowing such actions, treatment providers “first assess any wish involved in such activities, including the risk involved if the media or public identify Mr. Hinckley’s work.”