On March 30th, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. stood outside the Washington Hilton in D.C. with a .22 caliber Röhm RG-14 hidden in his jacket, waiting for the man he had come to kill – President Ronald Reagan.
As Reagan walked toward his motorcade, Hinckley parted from the crowd of onlookers and fired six shots. Screams erupted. Secret Service agents scrambled to find the shooter and shield the wounded president. A police officer and Secret Serviceman were hit. Press secretary John Brady lay motionless on the ground and would go on to live the remainder of his life brain damaged and mostly paralyzed due to the bullet that hit him above his right eye. The entire pandemonium was caught by news cameras and shared across the world to stunned and horrified viewers.
It had only been 18 years since the world had borne witness to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – and here they were watching another president possibly die on television. The public didn’t understand how this could happen again.
But unlike the events in Dallas, Hinckley’s attempt wasn’t successful and he was immediately caught on the scene. President Reagan was hit in the chest, but he was treated promptly and quickly recovered. The assassination attempt alone would have given him a place in the history books, but it was his motive that cemented him as arguably the most infamous would-be assassin of the 20th century – and a pop culture icon.
His plan, he later revealed, was to kill the president to impress actress Jodie Foster, who he’d been stalking for years after seeing her in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, in which the main character Travis Bickle makes a similar attempt on the life of a presidential candidate.
The whole thing was strange and titillating – two things Americans love in a crime story. The court case drew huge attention, and when Hinckley’s plea of not guilty by reason of insanity was accepted by the jury, the public lost it. How could a man that took shots at the president not be convicted for his crimes? That verdict resulted in widespread changes in laws that govern the insanity defense: Twelve states established guilty but mentally ill verdicts, while others abolished the insanity defense completely.
Even so, this type of defense is very rare, and its success is even more so. The insanity defense is only presented in about 1 percent of felony trials – and its success rate in felony trials overall is just a quarter of a percent. But it worked for Hinckley. He was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he received decades of therapy for what was diagnosed as a variety of psychotic problems, included schizophrenia and delusional disorder. But he responded well to treatment and, in 2003, was granted day visits to his parents’ home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Three years later, those visits were extended to three days. Over time, Hinckley completed more than 80 unsupervised visits and was spending 17 days out of the month in the community, living as normal a life as he could.
Now, 35 years since the shooting, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman has ordered the would-be assassin full convalescent leave, albeit with many stipulations. Hinckley, now 61, is set to be released on August 5th under various conditions, including mandatory therapy, monthly doctor’s visits and regular surveillance from the Secret Service.
In his opinion, Judge Friedman wrote that a team of experts, including all of Hinckley’s treatment providers, unanimously agreed that “he will no longer be a danger to himself or others,” and that he has actually been in “full and sustained remission for well over 20 years, perhaps more than 27 years.”
The news of his release has been met with another round of outcries. One conservative publication called it a “stain on American history.” The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute issued their own statement of disapproval: “Contrary to the judge’s decision, we believe John Hinckley Jr. is still a threat to others and we strongly oppose his release.”
However, experts in the field of judicial policy disagree. Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, an organization that works to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies, doesn’t see any reason to question the court’s determination.
“I understand some others in the public who are saying that now, but I don’t know what they’re basing that on,” says Schindler. “This case must be the most scrutinized case of its type probably ever. There’s no doubt that there was a very substantial and voluminous body of evidence before the court to inform this decision.”
He reverses the question: “What reason is there at this point to continue to hold him?” he says. “There’s no reason to continue to hold him other than punishment, which would be illegal because he wasn’t convicted of a crime.”
Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, which works to promote reform in the U.S. criminal justice system’s sentencing policy, agrees, and does not think the Reagan Presidential Foundation has done any independent assessment to believe otherwise. (A spokesperson for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation was reached but did not provide comment.)
Mauer also notes the thorough and systemic attention that has been put into Hinckley’s full rehabilitation. While prisons severely lack therapy and reentry services, leading to high rates of recidivism, he says Hinckley was placed in a system that prioritizes psychological intervention.
“As a result, people like John Hinckley Jr. have a better shot at rehabilitation than someone in the prison system,” he explains.
Schindler says the fact that Hinckley has spent more time in the community than he has at the hospital in the last few years also calls into question the concerns of public safety. He also thinks, based on information shared in the judge’s opinion regarding his treatment, Hinckley should have been released sooner.
However, Dr. Ronald Schouten, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the book Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? says no one can be sure if Hinckley’s release was the right decision.
“Those people that believe his release is a bad decision just don’t know that,” Schouten says. “They haven’t read the record, seen the medication he’s taken, or been in his therapy sessions. They don’t know what his responses have been. On the other hand, the people that say he’s fine don’t know that either because we can’t predict the future. He is a citizen who has not been convicted of a crime and who can only be held like any other patient if he poses a threat to himself or others.”
Still, Schouten says with patients like Hinckley, it’s “not that they will never commit another crime. But the odds that he’ll shoot another person are pretty darn low.” With the current climate regarding mass shootings and gun control, the question is, are any odds worth the risk?