WASHINGTON — More than 35 years after he tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster, John Hinckley Jr. will be allowed to leave a Washington mental hospital and live full time with his mother in Virginia, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
Judge Paul Friedman wrote that Hinckley — who currently spends more than half his days at his mother’s home — is ready to live full time in the community. Friedman granted Hinckley leave from the hospital starting no sooner than Aug. 5.
Doctors have said for many years that Hinckley, 61, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting, is no longer plagued by the mental illness that drove him to shoot Reagan.
Three others were wounded in the March 30, 1981, shooting outside a Washington hotel, including Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, who suffered debilitating injuries and died in 2014.
The shooting endangered Reagan’s life, but he recovered after undergoing emergency surgery. He died in 2004 at age 93.
Hinckley was a “profoundly troubled 25-year-old young man” when he shot Reagan, but his mental illnesses — major depression and psychotic disorder — have been in remission for more than 27 years, Friedman wrote.
“Mr. Hinckley, by all accounts, has shown no signs of psychotic symptoms, delusional thinking, or any violent tendencies,” the judge wrote in his opinion. “The court finds that Mr. Hinckley has received the maximum benefits possible in the inpatient setting (and) that inpatient treatment is no longer clinically warranted or beneficial.”
Hinckley’s release from Washington’s St. Elizabeths hospital has been more than a decade in the making. He was allowed day visits with his parents in 2003, and in 2006, he began visiting his parents’ home in Williamsburg, Virginia, for three-night stretches. That time has increased over the years so that for the past two-plus years he has been allowed to spend 17 days a month at the house overlooking a golf course in a gated community.
The foundation that honors Reagan’s legacy said Hinckley should remain in custody, noting his responsibility for Brady’s death, which was later ruled a homicide. Prosecutors declined to charge Hinckley with murder, in part because they would be barred from arguing he was sane at the time of the shootings.
“Contrary to the judge’s decision, we believe John Hinckley is still a threat to others and we strongly oppose his release,” the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute said in a statement.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, declined to offer an opinion on Hinckley’s release but used the occasion to call for background checks for all gun sales, which Reagan supported. He noted in a statement that it would be “just as easy” for a would-be assassin to buy a gun today as it was for Hinckley.
Largely remembered for his boyish mugshot, Hinckley is now a doughy man with graying hair who wears hats or visors when he drives around Williamsburg in a Toyota Avalon, going to movies and fast-food restaurants. He also plays guitar, paints and cares for feral cats.
While outside the hospital, Hinckley has had to comply with a series of restrictions, and some of those will continue. He must attend individual and group therapy sessions and is barred from talking to the media. He can drive, but there are restrictions on how far he can travel. The Secret Service also periodically follows him.
Despite the restrictions, life in Williamsburg will likely be busy for Hinckley. The judge ordered him to volunteer or work at a paid job at least three days a week. He has sought out work and volunteer opportunities, but so far has been unable to secure employment. According to court records, he has said it was difficult for him to ask for jobs at Starbucks and Subway while being followed by the Secret Service: “It made me feel awkward and uncomfortable.”
He has spent time volunteering at a church as well as a local mental hospital. He has also attended meetings for people living with mental illness, talks at a local art museum and concerts.
“I don’t like flipping around the TV, I want to do things,” a court document quoted him saying.
He also has said he wants to “fit in” and be “a good citizen.”
Hinckley must return to Washington once a month for doctors to check on his mental state and his compliance with the conditions of his leave, the judge ruled.
He also will be barred from trying to contact Foster, all relatives of Reagan and Brady or the other two victims, police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and their families.
He will have to live with his mother for a year. After that, he will have the freedom to live on his own, with roommates or in a group home in the Williamsburg area. If his 90-year-old mother, Jo Ann, is unable to monitor him, his brother or sister, who both live in the Dallas area, have agreed to stay with him until other arrangements are made. Hinckley’s father died in 2008.
Some of his mother’s neighbors have long been wary of Hinckley. Tom Campbell, who lives in the same gated community but not close by, said Wednesday he opposes the release, but more out of principle than fear for his grandkids — or the numerous other children who play in the neighborhood.
“From a mental illness perspective, I just have some reluctance about having him roam free like this,” said Campbell, 77, a retired manager at NASA. “How can he be allowed to roam the streets as if nothing happened?”
His wife, Mary Margaret Campbell, added: “I don’t think a lot of these mental illness issues go away. One never knows what a mentally ill person will do.”
Some of the conditions of Hinckley’s leave could be eliminated or reduced within 12 to 18 months, but if he violates the remaining conditions he still could be taken back to the hospital.
Hinckley’s attorney, Barry William Levine, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday. William Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, said the office is reviewing the ruling and has no comment.
Prosecutors had consistently opposed Hinckley’s efforts to gain more freedom, citing what they called a history of deceptive behavior. In July 2011, prosecutors said, Hinckley was supposed to go see a movie and instead went to a Barnes & Noble, where Secret Service agents saw him looking at shelves that contained books about Reagan and the assassination attempt. He didn’t pick up any of the books.