Forty years later, there are still unanswered questions about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But one is unanswered only because it has never been asked: If Lee Harvey Oswald were alive today, would we let him walk the streets a free man?
The question hasn’t been considered because it seems preposterous to think anyone would propose releasing a man who shot a president with the intention of killing him. But that is just what is being proposed in the case of John Hinckley Jr., who enjoys less notoriety than Oswald only because he wasn’t as competent.
On March 30, 1981, Hinckley went to a Washington hotel to assassinate President Reagan. As Reagan walked out of the hotel, Hinckley fired six shots, hitting the president, press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty. His purpose was to impress actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was strangely obsessed. Reagan was seriously wounded, and the bullet that penetrated James Brady’s brain left him permanently disabled.
Hinckley didn’t have anything special against Reagan. He had also planned to kill President Carter and shadowed him at a 1980 campaign appearance. Later, he went to Nashville to carry out his plan, only to be arrested at the Nashville airport with two handguns.
After his attack on Reagan, a jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Washington, D.C., where he has spent most of the last 21 years. I say “most” because he has left the grounds hundreds of times since 1999, accompanied by hospital escorts, to go to bowling alleys, shopping malls and restaurants.
Now, his parents have petitioned a court to let him make unsupervised day trips and overnight visits to their home in Williamsburg, Va. If this request is granted, Hinckley might someday be released for good.
Hinckley’s acquittal provoked a storm of outrage, which in turn led to laws strictly limiting the insanity defense. But the issue today is not whether that verdict was a miscarriage of justice. It’s whether, after two decades of confinement, Hinckley ought to be allowed out on his own. Most Americans would doubtless say no, and they would be right.
At the court hearings in Washington, his mother assured the judge, “There’s no issue of dangerousness with John at all.” Doctors said Hinckley’s treatment has been so successful that he would pose no danger. In fact, they say his mental disorders have been in “full remission” for “more than a decade.”
But his experience with psychiatrists doesn’t offer much basis for confidence in their judgments. In 1987, hospital officials concluded Hinckley had overcome his obsession with Jodie Foster — only to find he had hidden 57 photos of her in his room. At that point, they withdrew a request that he be allowed to leave the facility for day visits with his parents.
They made another request in 1988, before discovering he had written a letter trying to get a nude drawing of Foster. In 1996, a doctor called by prosecutors agreed Hinckley’s mental illness was no longer present. But he also said Hinckley had developed a fascination with a staff pharmacist who felt she was being “stalked.” The doctor also noted that Hinckley had managed to conceal this relationship from his therapists for nearly six months.
The following year, a federal judge rejected yet another request for “conditional release,” finding the patient had “deceived those treating him in ways too numerous to recount.” At last week’s hearing, the presiding judge was not entirely convinced by testimony that Hinckley has changed. “Sometimes people are deceptive and aren’t found out,” said the judge. “Maybe he’s learned what to be deceptive about.”
Of course it’s impossible for mere lay people to gauge whether Hinckley is likely to revert to his murderous ways. But you don’t have to be a psychiatrist or a judge to know that the dangers of being too careful are much less than the dangers of not being careful enough.
Maybe his lawyer is right when he says Hinckley is “probably the least dangerous person on the planet.” But what if he’s wrong?
Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate.