Should John Hinckley Go Free?
Published in The New York Times Magazine
November 16, 2003
On March 30, 1981 -- after a
half-dozen years of aimless wandering between Texas, Colorado,
Connecticut and California; after a stint living in Hollywood, where
he hoped to become famous as a songwriter; after stalking President
Jimmy Carter at campaign stops in Ohio and stalking the young
actress Jodie Foster at Yale -- John W. Hinckley Jr. finally settled
on a course of action. He awakened at the Park Central Hotel in
Washington. He got breakfast from McDonald's. He left behind a note
in his hotel room, addressed to Foster. "Jodie," he pleaded, "I'm
asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the
chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love."
At 2:25 p.m., as President Ronald Reagan walked to his limousine
after delivering a speech at the Washington Hilton, Hinckley fired
six shots with a .22-caliber pistol that wounded four people and
cast him, forever, as an American pariah.
One bullet lodged inches from Reagan's heart. Another struck his
press secretary, James Brady, and ravaged his brain.
Fifteen months after the shooting, at the end of a seven-week trial,
a jury in Washington rendered its verdict on John Hinckley: not
guilty by reason of insanity. The first two words of that verdict --
"not guilty" -- were (and remain) the most important. Their meaning
is that Hinckley was held legally blameless -- in the grip, on the
day of the shootings, of a psychological defect that roiled his
thinking and shut down his judgment.
Hinckley was 27 years old when he entered St. Elizabeths Hospital in
Washington on June 22, 1982, the day after the verdict. He is 48
now. The law is clear on what should happen at the point Hinckley is
judged to be sane. When he is no longer a danger to himself or to
others, he is to be set free.
This week, a hearing is scheduled to begin on Hinckley's petition
for a "limited conditional release." If it is granted, he will be
permitted a series of visits off the hospital grounds with his
parents -- and without hospital staff. These will be day outings,
and if all goes well, overnight visits will follow.
When he entered St. Elizabeths, Hinckley was given a diagnosis of
two major psychological maladies -- psychosis and major depression.
According to his doctors, both are now in "full remission." In fact,
his treatment team began saying that as far back as 1985.
In his motion to the United States District Court, Hinckley's
lawyer, Barry Levine, called the conditional release "the
appropriate next step in Mr. Hinckley's treatment." The hospital
also supported Hinckley's conditional release, while recommending a
more phased-in series of visits.
The government opposes any release, because the incremental steps
lead ultimately to his full freedom. That Hinckley could live
outside a prison or a locked hospital ward is, for many, a
profoundly uncomfortable thought. He tried to kill the president. He
had an attraction to Nazism and an affinity for Charles Manson.
But there is a powerful counterargument to be made that Hinckley's
release is long overdue. In the disposition of "insanity acquittees,"
the law does not sort them by whom they shot.
For 21 years now, Hinckley has lived on a ward inside the John
Howard Pavilion, a five-story structure that houses the N.G.I.'s, as
those who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are called at
St. Elizabeths. His room is small, about 10 feet by 15 feet. It is
furnished with a bed, a nightstand, a small dresser and little else.
A book or two usually sits on his nightstand. Hinckley is a reader,
although he is now extremely careful about the books he chooses,
because his reading material in the past has raised alarms and been
used against him.
He keeps his guitar in his room and sings and composes songs, as he
has done for much of his life. He does not look much different than
he did two decades ago. He resists strenuous exercise and is still a
little pudgy and soft-looking. He has all his blond hair.
Beyond the John Howard Pavilion is the rest of St. Elizabeths: more
than 100 red-brick buildings, some built before the Civil War, set
on more than 300 acres of high ground perched above the Anacostia
and Potomac Rivers, overlooking federal Washington. St. Elizabeths
has been called the most famous mental institution in the nation, a
renown that derives from its occasional celebrity residents -- most
notably, the poet Ezra Pound from 1946 to 1958 -- as well as from
its grand setting, stately architecture and sheer, imposing size. At
its peak, the hospital housed 7,000 patients. The population now
hovers around 500. Most of the buildings are vacant; the whole
western part of the campus has been gated shut; grass and weeds grow
through cracks in vast, empty parking lots.
Hinckley works as an archivist in the library, which makes him both
a prominent figure in and a custodian of the hospital's history.
After four hours of work on weekday mornings, he eats lunch, then
has "unaccompanied grounds privileges" for the remainder of the day.
He fills many of those hours walking the campus and feeding the many
stray cats who prowl the grounds. "Mr. Hinckley has 'adopted' a
number of cats at the hospital, which he feeds daily," an August
letter from the hospital to the District Court says.
Since 1999, Hinckley has participated in recreational trips off the
hospital grounds, accompanied by staff members -- he has gone to
bowling alleys, restaurants, bookstores, movies and the beach. The
Secret Service tails him on these occasions. When he visited the
bookstore, agents got close enough to ascertain what books caught
his interest. It also observes him on the grounds of St. Elizabeths
and, though the Secret Service refused to comment on this, will
presumably shadow him for life, in or out of the hospital.
Hinckley's routine includes meeting with his hospital psychiatrist
at least once a week. Additionally, he has regular contact with
another doctor assigned to his ward. He participates in group
therapy sessions. He still keeps mainly to himself, although his
doctors have noted that he "appears to be accepted by his peers in
spite of his 'notoriety' status."
He was off antipsychotic medicine for eight years and showed no
symptoms but agreed to go back on medication, his lawyer wrote, when
it was prescribed "solely as a prophylactic measure." Hinckley did
so, reluctantly, in order to be perceived as cooperating with
"What people do not understand," Levine, his lawyer, told me, "is
how painful the process of getting well is for someone like John. He
was delusional. He did not understand the wrongfulness of what he
did. Acquiring insight into his conduct, truly understanding what he
did, was a difficult and terrifying experience. That's when he
became aware of the unspeakable horror of what he had done."
Hinckley's parents have stuck by him. Jack and Jo Ann Hinckley moved
from Evergreen, Colo., to Virginia to be closer to him, and they
visit and call regularly. In the period just before the
assassination attempt, his parents sent him to see a psychiatrist.
Hinckley did not tell the doctor he was stalking Jodie Foster. He
did not reveal that he had purchased guns. The doctor diagnosed his
problem, essentially, as being pampered.
The Hinckleys ultimately lost patience with their son and with the
encouragement of the psychiatrist, turned him out of the house,
hoping that would force him to grow up and find some direction.
Later, at his trial, they wore the devastated look of people swept
up in a family tragedy of unimaginable proportions, one they feared
they had helped bring about. Jack Hinckley testified, "We forced him
out at a time that he just simply couldn't cope." Levine pressed for
the earliest possible hearing on his current motion partly in the
hope that the Hinckleys and their son could be together for
In addition to his family and his lawyer, Hinckley's other close
relationship in the last two decades has been with Leslie deVeau, a
former patient at St. Elizabeths who in 1982 killed her sleeping
10-year-old daughter with a blast from a 12-gauge semiautomatic
shotgun. She then tried to shoot herself in the heart, but succeeded
only in blowing her left arm off. DeVeau and Hinckley met at a dance
at St. Elizabeths and became soulmates. She was considered well
enough to leave the hospital in 1985, just three years after
shooting her daughter. In 1990, she was released from outpatient
For a time, they considered themselves engaged. She told The New
Yorker in 1999 that they had sexual relations on the grounds at St.
Elizabeths. It was, apparently, Hinckley's first sexual experience
other than with prostitutes. Their relationship is now said to be
platonic, but she still comes regularly to see him. It is deVeau who
provides the cat food.
The insanity defense in the United States is generally said to
descend from the 1843 trial in Britain of Daniel M'Naghten, a
Scottish woodcutter who believed he was being persecuted by the Tory
Party. M'Naghten tried to shoot Sir Robert Peel, the British prime
minister, but ended up killing his secretary. He was judged not
guilty by reason of insanity, which outraged the public. After the
verdict, the House of Lords set down what came to be known as the
M'Naghten test: to be found not guilty, a defendant must be "labouring
under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to
know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did
know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong."
The insanity defense in United States law was broadened over time to
include defendants whose acts were the "product" of mental disease,
who may have known they were committing a crime but were driven by
some irresistible impulse or delusion. In the Hinckley trial,
Federal District Judge Barrington Parker instructed the jury to
acquit Hinckley if they found his actions were related to "any
abnormal condition of the mind, regardless of its medical label,
which substantially affects mental or emotional processes and
substantially impairs his behavior controls." The instruction was
straightforward; the jury's task was anything but. Rather than
making a finding of fact, the jury had to determine what was in
That Hinckley was fairly well kempt and able to make his way around
the country -- to get on airplanes and check in and out of hotels,
to insert exploding "Devastator" bullets into his gun rather than
the more conventional ammunition he also carried -- struck many as
signs of his sanity. His bizarre belief that he could actually win
the heart of a famous actress by shooting Ronald Reagan was powerful
evidence of his insanity.
The diagnosis that Hinckley was given after he entered St.
Elizabeths -- psychosis, N.O.S. (meaning "not otherwise specified")
-- was an indication that he did not present classic or
stereotypical signs of schizophrenia. The designation does not mean
that the diagnosis is in doubt, but rather that it does not
precisely match any of the definitions in the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
"Psychosis usually means you are having hallucinations or delusions;
you're out of touch with reality," says E. Fuller Torrey, a
prominent psychiatrist who worked at St. Elizabeths in the early
1980's and examined Hinckley. "To a lay person, John Hinckley didn't
look like the raving maniac you usually think of. But to those of us
in the business who looked at some of the things he was writing and
saying, there was no question he was delusional."
The hearing set to begin on Monday will not involve a jury; the
decision will rest solely with Federal District Judge Paul Friedman,
a former president of the District of Columbia Bar who was appointed
to the bench in 1994 by President Clinton. The previous judge, June
L. Green, ruled consistently for the government. (She heard cases
until a month before her death, in 2001, at age 87.) This will be
Friedman's first chance to make a major ruling in the case, and both
sides see it as a critical moment. Instead of looking at the reasons
Hinckley acted, as the jury did in 1982, Friedman will have to make
an equally difficult judgment: what is Hinckley likely, or not
likely, to do in the future?
Hinckley's I.Q. has been measured at 113, which is considered
"bright normal." He's not a genius, and should not be able, at least
in theory, to fool his highly trained doctors and a hospital staff
that has custody of him 24 hours a day. When they say, plainly, that
he is not a danger to himself or others, they presumably are in a
position to know.
Hinckley has filed several motions since the late 1980's for his
conditional release, and all have either been denied or withdrawn
before a judge could rule. He has tended to undermine himself. In
1987, hospital staff discovered a grandiose, defiant journal entry
that has come back to haunt him at several legal proceedings. It
said: "I dare say that not one psychiatrist who has analyzed me
knows any more about me than the average person on the street who
has read about me in the newspapers. Psychiatry is a guessing game,
and I do my best to keep the fools guessing about me. They will
never know the true John Hinckley."
The journal entry was written during his turbulent first decade at
St. Elizabeths, when he did various things that damaged his
prospects for release. Fifty-seven pictures of Foster were
discovered in his room in 1987. He corresponded with the serial
killer Ted Bundy. He granted interviews, including one to Penthouse
in 1983, in which he said he was "surprised, shocked and
flabbergasted" to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. He also
suggested that he was a "political revolutionary" and that he
planned to become a crusader for stricter gun-control laws. Hinckley
also attempted suicide at least twice after arriving at St.
His interviews and craving of public attention have been used by
government prosecutors as evidence that his other psychiatric
malady, narcissistic personality disorder -- extreme grandiosity and
a sense of entitlement -- still seemed to be raging. Psychiatrists
do not generally say that personality disorders are in remission,
but a goal of therapy would be to come to terms with such a disorder
and bring it under control.
Hinckley no longer gives interviews. Neither do his parents. It is a
strategic decision, intended to enhance his prospects for liberty.
"He didn't have a political fantasy and think he was saving the
world by shooting my father and all the other people he shot," Ron
Reagan Jr., the former president's son, says to me. "He was just
trying to impress a girl, and I don't think that's changed. I think
he's still the grown baby that he was. If he doesn't think he's
getting his due, all the attention he wants, then he could still be
a danger to people."
Ron Reagan says that his father long ago forgave Hinckley. "He made
peace with it. He forgave this crazy young man. Maybe I'm just not
the forgiving type, but I don't trust Mr. Hinckley. He wanted to be
pen pals with Ted Bundy. Who the hell writes to Ted Bundy?" He adds:
"An attack on the president or other leading members of the
government is an attack on the nation itself. You can't get a free
pass on that."
That last statement no doubt resonates with much of the American
public. Eighty-three percent of the respondents to a 1982 ABC News
poll said they disagreed with the verdict in the Hinckley case. It
is safe to say that there is no public groundswell for Hinckley's
release. Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who made
unsuccessful assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford within
a month of each other in 1975, remain in prison, as do Sirhan Sirhan,
who murdered Robert Kennedy, and Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's
Public opinion should not, of course, play any part in Hinckley's
fate. But the prosecutors and Hinckley's lawyer are acutely aware of
it and have been sparring about how much the public should see
before the hearing. Levine has tried to keep certain documents --
including the actual motion for conditional release -- under seal
until the hearing starts. The government has argued for the
unsealing of documents, claiming that the public has a "legitimate
interest" in the case. In response, Levine wrote that prosecutors
were trying to "whip up media frenzy and public unrest." (The judge
has unsealed some documents and kept others out of the public court
Hinckley's hearing before Judge Friedman could last for more than a
week. Most of it will consist of testimony by psychiatrists,
including Hinckley's treatment team, and two psychiatrists chosen by
prosecutors. As there was at his 1982 trial, there is likely to be
disagreement among the experts, conflicting views of what Hinckley's
mental state might hold for the future.
The government will argue that he is simply too dangerous and
unpredictable to be trusted. Hinckley's lawyers will counter that
the 1981 shootings came from a particularly dire "confluence" of
psychological conditions, and that if his mental state starts to
decline, there will be plenty of advance warning before he becomes
dangerous. Hinckley himself is not expected to testify; taking the
stand could expose him to days of cross-examination, much of it
focused on what transpired when he was a young man.
Unless it is revealed that Hinckley has committed some recent
misdeeds, that he has corresponded unwisely or stashed new pictures
of Jodie Foster -- and there is no indication such evidence is
coming -- the momentum is likely to continue in the direction of
more freedom. How much, and how soon, will depend on the weight
Judge Friedman places on Hinckley's current diagnosis as opposed to
the weight he gives to past deceptions. It also depends, of course,
on Friedman's taste for making unpopular decisions.
Copyright © 2002