Explained: Who is John Hinckley, the man who almost killed Ronald Reagan, but will soon be free?

Forty-one years after he attempted to assassinate former United States President Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley Jr., 67, is set to be released unconditionally from supervision under court orders. But the decision promises to be contentious.

Wasn’t John Hinckley in prison?

No. Hinckley was suffering from a mental illness at the time he attacked Reagan in 1981. He was kept at St Elizabeth’s Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Washington DC, for more than 20 years after a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity.

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From 2003 onward, US District Judge Paul Friedman started to allow him to spend longer periods of time in the community, but he had to continue to attend therapy, and restrictions were put on where he could travel.

In 2016, he was conditionally released from hospital so he could care for his elderly mother at her home in a gated community in Williamsburg, Virginia. He had been under treatment for depression and psychosis while in hospital, and continued to be under minimal psychiatric supervision while living with his mother.

What happened after that?

Hinckley’s mother passed away in August 2021. His father had died in 2008, at a time when he could visit his parents at their home in Virginia, but was still not allowed to live with them.

At the time of his mother’s death, Hinckley was required to give officials access to his electronic devices, email, and online accounts, and he was forbidden from going to places where he knew there would be someone under the protection of the Secret Service. He was also required to give three days’ notice if he wanted to travel more than 75 miles from his home in Virginia, according to a report by the AP.

How did he come to be freed from these restrictions?

In September last year, Judge Friedman announced that Hinckley’s mental health problems were “in remission”, and that he no longer posed a danger to himself or to others around him. He said he would give Hinckley back his freedom without conditions, but allowed the state more time to monitor Hinckley as he started to live by himself.

Last month, prosecutors who had previously opposed ending restrictions on Hinckley, submitted a status report saying he had “recovered his sanity such that he does not present a danger to himself or others because of mental illness if unconditionally released on June 15, 2022”.

On Wednesday (June 1), Judge Friedman lifted the remaining restrictions — on travel and using the Internet — on Hinckley. “He’s been scrutinized,” the AP quoted the judge as saying. “He’s passed every test. He’s no longer a danger to himself or others.”
The order for release will take effect on June 15.

What had happened on the day Hinckley tried to kill Reagan?

On March 30, 1981, Reagan, who had been sworn in as President that January, addressed The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) at the Washington Hilton.

After the address, as Reagan walked back to his limousine to leave the hotel, Hinckley, who was waiting for him, fired six shots, hitting the President, White House Press Secretary James S Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy J McCarthy, and police officer Thomas K Delahanty.

The President suffered a fractured lung, but recovered. Brady and Delahanty suffered permanent physical damage. Brady died of complications arising out of the injuries in 2014. Reagan died in 2004, of reasons that were unrelated to the attack. He had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and had caught pneumonia.

How did the trial proceed?

Hinckley was charged with three counts of violation of federal laws and 10 counts of violation of District of Columbia laws. These included an attempt to kill the President, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault with intent to kill while armed, assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon, and carrying a pistol without the required license.

The not guilty verdict triggered widespread outrage across the country, and had a far reaching impact. It caused the laws regarding the insanity defence to be rewritten altogether, and three states discontinued the defence completely.

And what exactly was the insanity plea?

Investigators found that Hinckley harboured an obsession with Jodie Foster that was rooted in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, in which the actress played Iris, a child prostitute. He had made several attempts to confess his love to the actress, sending her notes and poems, and moving cities to be able to get closer to her.

Over time, Hinckley came to believe that Foster would only consider him as her equal if he took some dramatic action. The protagonist in Taxi Driver had plotted to kill a presidential candidate, and on one occasion Hinckley got dangerously close to President Jimmy Carter at Nashville International Airport, where his attempt was thwarted by the FBI. He also considered hijacking an aircraft, along with committing suicide to gain Foster’s attention and admiration, and finally settled on trying to assassinating President Reagan.

About 30 minutes prior to the shooting, Hinckley wrote a long letter to Foster, mentioning “GOODBYE! I love you six trillion times” and “There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan. It is for this very reason that I am writing you this letter now.”

What happens now that Hinckley can lead a normal life?

In 2016, after Hinckley’s conditional release was announced, The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute had issued a statement which read: “Contrary to the judge’s decision, we believe John Hinckley is still a threat to others and we strongly oppose his release. They are all lives that matter dearly to us.” Brady’s death 33 years after the assassination attempt has been ruled as a homicide.
In 2021, the Reagan Foundation issued another statement saying it hoped that “the Justice Department will file a motion with the court leading to a reversal of this decision (to lift restrictions on Hinckley)”.

With a considerable body of public opinion still against Hinckley, it can be expected that his unconditional release will be contentious.

Manya Shiel is an intern with The Indian Express

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