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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

John Hinckley Jr.

     Most Americans are uncomfortable with the criminal law doctrine that if you kill or try to kill someone in the throes of mental illness you should not be punished but instead be treated and cured of the ailment that caused your deviant behavior. Criminal defense attorneys realize that the not guilty by reason of insanity plea is a tough sell. Juries usually don't buy it. But occasionally there are exceptions to the insanity defense aversion. Take the case of John Hinckley, Jr. Although it is hard to believe, Mr. Hinckley tried to kill the President of the United States and did not go to prison. For most people the idea of releasing a would-be presidential assassin back into society is a notion more insane than Mr. Hinckley himself.

     John Hinckley Jr., at 2:27 in the afternoon of March 30, 1981, shot President Ronald Reagan in the chest and lower right arm with a six-shot, .22-caliber revolver. The president was leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. The 25-year-old shooter also wounded White House press secretary James Brady and two others in the presidential party. All of the victims survived, but Mr. Brady was paralyzed for life.

     At his trial in federal court, Mr. Hinckley's attorneys pleaded him not guilty by reason of insanity. According to the defense, John Hinckley had been obsessed with the film actress Jodi Foster who had played the role of a 12-year-old prostitute in the movie "Taxi Driver." Hinckley had seen the film fifteen times and had written Foster several fan letters. In the movie, New York City cab driver Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro, attempts to assassinate a U.S. Senator who was running for president. Hinckley claimed to have shot the president and the others in an attempt to gain favor with the young actress.

    At John Hinckley's trial a battery of defense psychiatrists testified that the defendant, a man who suffered from psychosis and severe depression, also possessed a narcissistic personality disorder. Notwithstanding the fact the defendant knew exactly what he was doing when he shot the president and the others, and knew that what he was doing was wrong, the jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. If that wasn't bad enough, the verdict left open the possibility that Hinckley could one day live outside a mental institution.

     Over the next 34 years Mr. Hinckley spent most of his time at St. Elizabeth's Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 2006, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that he could spend three days a month at his mother Jo Ann's house in Williamsburg, Virginia. Over the years this judge allowed Hinckley more time outside the hospital in the company of his mother at her luxury home overlooking the 13th hole on an exclusive golf course. Federal prosecutors, at each of these sentencing hearings, fought against granting Mr. Hinckley more freedom.

     In 2013 U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman, against the strenuous objects of prosecutors, granted John Hinckley the right to live with his mother, then 88-years-old, 17 days out of every month. The judge allowed this freedom after psychiatrists testified that Hinckley's psychosis and depression had been in remission for decades. The doctors did concede that Hinckley still possessed a narcissistic personality disorder. (In the D.C. area throw a stick and it will hit nine people with the same disorder.) As a condition of his expanded freedom Mr. Hinckley was required to check in regularly with his doctors and to keep taking his medication.

     Judge Friedman, pursuant to the Hinckley ruling, urged President Reagan's shooter to take music therapy classes and to do volunteer work at a local hospital.

     From all appearances John Hinckley had it pretty good. When in Williamsburg he drove around in a Toyota Avalon, went to the movies, ate out, took long walks, shopped, played his guitar and painted. Because he did not receive Social Security or Medicare benefits, Hinckley's out of hospital expenses were picked up by his family and amounted to between $5,000 and $10,000 a month. This did not seem to be a horrible existence for a man who had knowingly tried to kill the president of the United States.

     On April 22, 2015 Jon Hinckley's tireless attorneys and their psychiatrists were back in federal court to gain even more freedom for their client. At the hearing, doctors from St. Elizabeths urged the judge to allow Hinckley to move out of the psychiatric facility permanently. Barry Levine, Hinckley's principal lawyer, told the court that his client had not shown "a hint of dangerous behavior."

     On the third day of the Hinckley hearing Dr. Giogi-Guarnieri, one of Hinckley's psychiatrists, testified that the presidential shooter wanted to start a band and desired to publish his music anonymously. Mr. Hinckley, however, did not want to perform publicly. According to Dr. Giorgi-Guarnieri, Mr. Hinckley also wanted to start dating a girl he met at a National Association for the Mentally Ill meeting.

     In August 2015 James Brady died at the age of 73. Although the medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia decided not to pursue the case against the man who shot him in 1981.

     Federal Judge Paul Friedman, on July 27, 2016, ruled that Hinckley could begin his permanent "convalescent leave" on August 5, 2016.

     In November 2018 Judge Friedman granted John Hinckley the right to move out of his mother's house in Williamsburg and live on his own. Pursuant to the ruling, the 63-year-old assassin must live within 75 miles of the city and meet at least twice a month with his social worker, psychiatrist and therapist. Under the terms of his release he was prohibited from owning a gun, drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs. 


  1. Jim,

    What is most important here is Hinckley
    s family money and power. If he was just an average Joe he would have been put away for life in a federal prison. But Mommy and Daddy had the connections to make sure that did not happen.

    1. A case of "affluenza" before they coined the term?

  2. Since James Brady died, too bad they don't charge Hinckley with murder. This has been done before when a victim passes away years after the murder attempt.

    1. ...and let's face it, Hinckley murdered James Brady. Slowly and painfully.