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John Hinckley Earns His Freedom, Decades After Attempted Assassination


John Hinckley has won his freedom 35 years after he tried to kill a president. A judge ruled Hinckley can leave a mental institution to live full time with his mother in Virginia. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on what went into that decision.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It was March 30, 1981 outside a hotel in Washington. A shaggy haired man with a gun aimed his weapon at the president and fired six times.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: President Reagan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: President Reagan.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Back up. Back up. Get back. Get back.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get him out. Get him out. Get him out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: President Reagan, Press Secretary James Brady, a secret service agent and a metropolitan policeman were shot outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.

JOHNSON: Reagan spent nearly two weeks in the hospital recovering from wounds and blood loss. His press secretary, James Brady, was shot in the head. Brady survived but spent the next 28 years in a wheelchair. A year after the attack, a Washington, D.C., jury found the perpetrator, John Hinckley, not guilty by reason of insanity.


PATTI DAVIS: The verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity was a bad verdict.

JOHNSON: That's Patti Davis, President Reagan's daughter talking to NPR last year. Davis says Hinckley knew right from wrong at the time of the attack, and she says trying to assassinate a president is a special kind of crime.


DAVIS: I mean, you can't say, well, if he shot the butcher, it would be different. He did try to shoot a president. We hold that crime in a different category than we do other attempted murders.

JOHNSON: After the court order, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation issued a statement saying it strongly opposes Hinckley's freedom and still considers him a threat. But that assessment conflicts with medical experts.

For the past 10 years, Hinckley has marched steadily toward freedom. St. Elizabeth's Mental Institution says he no longer presents a danger to himself or others. Doctors report his depression and psychosis are in full remission. In court, his lawyer describes a man who plays guitar, goes to movies and browses in bookstores. He already spends 17 days a month with his mother in Williamsburg, Va.

JOE MANN: It could be a grave mistake to try to force fit him into that community with his 90-year-old mother.

JOHNSON: Neighbor Joe Mann worries about releasing Hinckley into a resort area filled with family homes and golf courses.

MANN: And what I think of is Hinckley may be OK as long as he is on his drugs. What goes off when he misses a dose or two, or decides I don't need this stuff?

JOHNSON: Hinckley's brother and sister told the court they know their mom's getting old. They promised a judge they'd step in to help if needed. His longtime lawyer Barry Levine says Hinckley is entitled to live under the least-restrictive conditions in keeping with public safety.

BARRY LEVINE: This case shows that people who are ravaged by disease, mental disease - such people can get well and become productive members of society without imposing any threat of danger.

JOHNSON: Levine says Hinckley is profoundly sad and sorry to his victims, their families and the nation. Under the terms of release, authorities will be able to restrict Hinckley's use of social media and monitor his whereabouts. The judge says, no weapons, no contact with victims, their relatives or actress Jodie Foster, with whom Hinckley had an obsession.

And most importantly, the judge says Hinckley is barred from going any place where the president, lawmakers or cabinet members may be present. In an interview with NPR, former prosecutor Thomas Zeno explained why.

THOMAS ZENO: The question with Mr. Hinckley is because he has this basic character flaw or personality flaw, as it is called, of narcissism, can he really be changed, and will he be a different person?

JOHNSON: The Justice Department says it's reviewing the judge's decision. John Hinckley is now 61 years old. Like many people of his age, he suffers from arthritis, high blood pressure and other ailments. He could be free as early as next weekend. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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