A federal judge has granted John Hinckley, the man who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, unconditional release from the remaining terms of his psychiatric confinement. 

If all goes as expected, Hinckley will be living where he chooses, coming and going as he pleases, as of June 2022, 40 years after he was found not guilty by reason of insanity by a jury in Washington D.C. 

John Hinckley was born in May 1955 to a wealthy family in the oil business. He was not yet 26, then, when he shot and severely injured President Reagan and three other people — a police officer, a secret service agent, and Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady.

Hinckley was infatuated with the actress Jodie Foster, best known at the time for the 1976 film Taxi Driver, in which it is precisely infatuation with Jodie Foster’s character that causes the character played by Robert De Niro to attempt a political assassination.   

John Hinckley Timeline

John Hinckley wrote Jodie Foster a letter, an hour before his assassination, in which he told her he would soon commit a “historical deed” that might cause her to “look into your heart” and grant him “your love and respect.”  

The psychiatrists who testified at his trial, for both prosecution and defense, agreed that he was mentally ill, although their precise diagnoses differed. The ultimate question was whether his mental disease or defect rendered him incapable of appreciating the difference between right and wrong or unable to conform his behavior to the requirements of the law.   

Having “won” the jury verdict on that point in 1982, John Hinckley was committed to St. Elizabeth Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Southeast Washington, run by the District’s Department of Behavioral Health. St. Elizabeth’s has been operated since 1855, when it was opened under the name, “Government Hospital for the Insane.”

The new ruling, that he will be unconditionally free less than a year from now, is the culmination of a five-year process. In 2016, he was released from St. Elizabeth’s to live with his mother, but this was to be under heavy supervision and restrictions.    

Those are about to be lifted, according to the order handed down Monday by Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman.

A Nine-Month Wait

Upon news of the final end to restrictions, attorneys for Hinckley released a statement on his behalf: “He apologizes to the Reagan family. The president was a man of generous spirit and magnanimity. He apologizes to the family of Jim and Sarah Brady, whose lives were altered by what he did. He apologizes to the Families of Secret Service Special Agent Tim McCarthy and Metropolitan Police Department Officer Thomas Delahanty.”  

The unconditional release does not have immediate effect because the U.S. Justice Department said it wanted to monitor him for another nine months. His mother has passed away, he is living alone for the first time in decades, his doctor recently retired and his therapy group disbanded. 

Given those facts, and even without any finding that Hinckley is a danger to himself or others, Friedman is allowing the nine-month transitory monitoring. 

Hinckley will also now be allowed to sell artwork and music under his own name. That has been deemed inappropriate until now, with courts taking the view that he should not be allowed to benefit from the notoriety acquired at the expense of the four people he shot.  

The Insanity Defense

His case, with its decades of confinement, and then years of severe restrictions on movement, might serve as an object lesson. The insanity defense is not an “easy way out.” 

The insanity defense, even when successful, involves restrictions quite analogous to those of a guilty verdict.