The attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan, only a few months into his first term in 1981, shocked the nation. Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., was found not guilty by reason of insanity, which led to widespread criticism, dismay, and anger.
Now 66 and the subject of decades of treatment, Hinckley is set to be completely free next summer, after a federal judge recently ordered his unconditional release. While the announcement is resurfacing the anger at Hinckley’s deed, it also raises important questions about the “insanity defense” and his subsequent treatment.
The Weirdest Assassination Attempt Ever
Hinckley’s shooting of Reagan — along with press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, and Washington, D.C., police officer Thomas Delahanty — outside the Washington Hilton was over a woman.
Hinckley was obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster and decided that assassinating the president would be the ultimate romantic gesture. After a defense psychiatric report that portrayed Hinckley as legally insane and suffering from schizophrenia, he was found not guilty by the jury and committed to a Washington, D.C., mental hospital.
A Gradual Gaining of Freedom
Starting in 1999, Hinckley was allowed to visit his parents. He gradually gained freedom piece-by-piece until 2016, when he was allowed to live with his mother, although with several harsh conditions. He moved out on his own in 2018.
Now, Hinckley faces the possibility of unconditional release in June 2022 should he stay out of trouble and show no signs of regression until then. This means he will be free to do as he pleases and go where he wants.
How Hinckley Avoided Lifelong Confinement
In releasing Hinckley, the court is saying that he is cured of what led to the assassination attempt and no longer poses a danger to society. U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman cited the extensive studies and care that Hinckley has received since his commitment.
A common perception when someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity is that they will spend the rest of their life in a psychiatric facility. But that is not necessarily the case.
Hinckley and many people like him (a 2017 study estimated there were more than 10,000 Americans fitting the description) have been acquitted. However, the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Foucha v. Louisiana found that those who successfully use the insanity defense can only be held until they are free from mental illness. In that case, the state found that a patient was cured but still dangerous.
So for some, “successful” use of the insanity defense does still mean a lifetime of commitment. However, in Hinckley’s case, he was able to abide by the rigorous treatment program and the conditions for his supervised release.
Friedman acknowledged that if Hinckley targeted anyone other than the president, “he would have been released a long, long, long time ago.” So it also speaks to the quality of Hinckley’s legal representation that he is the first presidential assassin or attempted assassin to gain his freedom.
- John Hinckley Jr. and the Insanity Defense (FindLaw’s Don’t Judge Me Podcast)
- Learn More About Involuntary Commitment (FindLaw’s Learn About the Law)
- Learn More About the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons (FindLaw’s Learn About the Law)
- The Insanity Defense: How Insane is Enough? (FindLaw’s Criminal Defense Blog)
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