Don't let Hinckley roam free
Reagan's daughter tells why his attacker's day-trips are a
menace to society
It was a chilly March day, the sky ash colored, moist with
drizzle. Outside the Washington Hilton Hotel sat a long line of
black cars and military vehicles, a commonplace scene in the
nation's capital. At about two o'clock, the President of the
U.S. walked out from his scheduled appearance there--a slot on
his calendar, nothing unusual in the life of a President. He
turned, smiled, waved to the gathered crowd, squinting a little
even though the day was dull, maybe to see better because he's
nearsighted and didn't always wear his contact lenses. Then came
the gunshots. So quick, not loud at all. The President was
shoved into his limousine. A young blond man with wide,
unblinking eyes was wrestled to the ground, the gun still in his
hand. Press secretary James Brady lay in a pool of blood, his
skull shattered. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, who had
jumped into the path of the bullets, lay sprawled on the cement,
blood pouring from a wound in his abdomen.
The President almost died from a wound no one knew he had in all
that chaos. It was 19 years ago. The President was my father.
The young blond man was John Hinckley, who believed that if he
shot the President, he and Jodie Foster would be forever united
in heaven. Months later, a jury found Hinckley not guilty by
reason of insanity, and he has spent the past 18 years locked
inside St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. The Secret Service
has never stopped monitoring him. They show up whenever they
want to observe him.
Since last August they have also followed him off the grounds of
St. Elizabeths (recently renamed the Commission on Mental Health
Services) whenever Hinckley is allowed supervised day-trips,
which have run in length up to eight hours. Prosecutors objected
to this, but an appeals court overruled them. Hinckley has gone
to shopping malls, restaurants and the beach. But the newest
development is the most chilling. Last week the hospital
requested that Hinckley be allowed visits unsupervised by
hospital staff, one day a week, on a Saturday or Sunday, to be
with his parents. While Secret Service agents will tail him, the
conditions are minimal: he must not stray outside a 50-mile
radius from the hospital. Someone walking his dog in Virginia
may run into Hinckley. The U.S. Attorney's office is challenging
this and has asked for a hearing next month. But if the past is
a lesson, we should all take heed. Is Hinckley less insane now?
Is he no longer violent?
The questions seem endless. They collide with my emotions, still
fresh from that cold spring day. My father rushed into surgery,
the doctors desperately trying to find a bullet that ended up
being a quarter of an inch from his heart. Our long, dark plane
flight from California, not knowing if our father would be alive
when we got there. Michael, Maureen and I were flown back on an
Army transport plane. Ron was in the middle of the country, and
they chartered a plane to get him to Washington. My mother
curled up in bed that night with a shirt of my father's,
praying, breathing in his scent through the sleepless hours,
wondering how she would live if he died.
Less than 48 hours after my father was shot, he said this about
Hinckley: "I know that my healing depends on forgiving him. He's
a misguided young man." Whether my father's forgiveness would
extend to approving of Hinckley's new privileges will never be
known. Alzheimer's disease has taken away that opportunity. I
want to believe that my father would approve of my efforts to
look at this situation as objectively as I can.
Barry Levine represents Hinckley and, as one might expect from
his attorney, is passionate in support of Hinckley's day-trips.
"John Hinckley is profoundly remorseful," Levine told me. "He
regrets this event more than anything. He is haunted by what he
did--more so than when he was sick and didn't fully understand
what he had done. Now he understands the stark horror of his
Which begs the question: How does one really know? What if
Hinckley is so methodical, so calculating, that he's been
fooling everyone for all these years?
"John has been continually evaluated, not by psychiatrists hired
by his parents but by doctors at St. Elizabeths, a state-run
hospital," Levine said. "The medical reports are consistent in
their assessment of his condition."
Hinckley's condition was diagnosed as falling into two
categories of mental illness. What is known as Axis I refers to
general psychological disorders--in Hinckley's case, psychosis
and major depression. These disorders can go into remission, and
there is evidence that, with Hinckley, they have. Axis II refers
to the way an individual behaves in the world. Hinckley was
found to have narcissistic personality disorder. According to
Levine, opinions are mixed on whether an Axis II condition can
ever go into remission. My research of the field shows
otherwise. The general consensus is that Axis II disorders never
entirely go away. Has Hinckley done something unheard of, been
healed of a narcissistic disorder, a driving desire to be
noticed at any cost?
There is an inherent irony to the insanity defense. Initially,
prosecutors claim the defendant isn't insane, he's accountable
for his actions and should be punished. The defendant claims his
mind is so ravaged by mental illness he can't be held
responsible. Then the roles reverse. Once the defendant, now the
patient, has been in a mental institution for a while, the claim
is: I'm fine; I've been treated; I'm no longer a danger to
society. The government then says no, he's too unstable, too
ill. Keep him locked up.
There have been efforts to get Hinckley out since the late
1980s. They were unsuccessful until his attorneys came up with
the strategy of arguing that there had been a misinterpretation
of a District of Columbia law that had made it necessary for a
federal judge to sign off on Hinckley's proposed furloughs. They
contended that this was not clearly stated in the law, and in
January 1999 they won.
To determine how calculating Hinckley is, it seems valuable to
look at the shooting itself, and at the time preceding it.
Hinckley had an all-consuming passion--to be a headline news
story. Everything he planned, thought, considered was aimed at
that goal. On March 30 he was clearheaded enough to stand
outside the Hilton without attracting the attention of the
Secret Service. Prior to that day, he studied Mark David
Chapman, John Lennon's assassin. Like Chapman, Hinckley brought
along a copy of The Catcher in the Rye; he also kept a diary and
wrote letters meant to be found later. And he stalked other
public figures before that awful day.
Hinckley didn't intend to fail. He intended to kill the
President. He failed narrowly--because of fast thinking on the
part of the Secret Service, because my father was strong, fit, a
fighter and because God didn't intend for him to die that day.
Gavin de Becker, the security expert and author, told me that in
Hinckley's case, "the wrongness of the act was part of the
appeal." That hardly fits into an insanity defense, which is
based in large part on the contention that the individual cannot
distinguish between right and wrong. According to Joseph
diGenova, who was the supervising attorney for the government in
1982 when Hinckley was tried, he has got away with a lot over
the years. In the late 1980s diGenova was one of the attorneys
who blocked Hinckley's first attempts to get out on supervised
visits. At that time it was learned that Hinckley had been
writing to mass murderers Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. But the
doctors at St. Elizabeths--the doctors pushing for Hinckley's
day passes--didn't know that because they weren't searching his
room, believing this would invade his privacy.
DiGenova still objects to the day-trips--supervised or not. The
Secret Service "shouldn't have to spend its time, and taxpayer
money, following John Hinckley out into the community where the
current President lives," he says. "Hinckley should be confined
to the environment of St. Elizabeths." Congress could actually
overturn the recent court ruling in Washington because the
District, unlike the states, is under congressional jurisdiction
on such issues. That's exactly what diGenova believes should
happen. "Congress should amend this immediately," he says. I
hope this will inspire people to write to their representatives.
Beyond all the legal issues, the speculation about psychological
disorders, there is this: in a matter of minutes lives were
shattered. Jim Brady will never be the person he was; my father
and agent McCarthy have scars that run much deeper than the
flesh. All because one young man wanted to be famous. Now
Hinckley says he's sorry. But is he sorry for what he did, or
only sorry that he didn't succeed completely?
Neither Sarah Brady nor my mother has ever spoken publicly about
Hinckley; I'm sure just the syllables of his name cut cruelly
into wounds that never really healed.
Tim McCarthy is now chief of police in Orland Park, Ill. "I
don't hold a grudge against John Hinckley," he says. "I was
doing my job. But as for him getting out on visits, I hope
they're right in their assessment of him. I'm not a
psychiatrist, but he already demonstrated his willingness to
take lives. I just hope they're right."
My brother Ron asks rhetorically, "Is Hinckley being treated
differently because his parents can afford high-priced lawyers?
This is not usually the way we treat presidential assassins. We
tend to come down hard on people who try to kill a President.
It's a crime against the nation. If his parents are working up
to asking for a full release, they should think long and hard
about what they're doing."
My older brother Michael believes that's exactly what may be
coming. "This is the first step toward complete exoneration for
Hinckley. He committed the horrible crime of shooting three
people with the intent to kill. Should he get more leniency
because he failed in his ultimate mission? What if our father
had died? Would the jury have made the same decision? And if
Hinckley wants to impress someone again, what will he do?"
The day after Hinckley's insanity verdict was handed down 18
years ago, Dan Rather did a commentary that now seems sadly
prophetic. In part he said, "If John Hinckley has the will (and
he has shown he is willful) and the way (and his family is
rich), he will probably down the road ask to be released from
St. Elizabeths on the grounds that he is no longer dangerous.
And sooner or later, a panel of experts may nod and say yes."
I don't seem to have my father's gift for forgiveness--not yet
anyway. Over the years my rage toward Hinckley has turned icy
but hasn't diminished. I thought perhaps by looking into all
aspects of his case, I could at least rid myself of some of the
anger. But instead I've only proved what I already thought: he
has worked the system; he's still working it; and he'll keep on
until he's a free man. The legacy of violence is the rage it
ignites in others. I wish I didn't feel it, but I do. And the
worst of it is, that keeps him in my mind. He did, after all,
crave attention. Sadly, he still has mine.
I do feel sorry for Hinckley's parents. But not as sorry as I
feel for the Bradys, the family that has suffered the most, that
has endured the shadow of Hinckley's evil intent. I believe
Hinckley knew full well what evil is; I believe he was drawn to
it, excited by it; and I believe that he may still be. I don't
know whether he remains dangerous. But he is guilty; he always
was. Now they unlock the doors for him, send him out across the
lawn--smiling, hugging his parents, eager for a day beyond the
walls of St. Elizabeths. But no one can release Jim Brady and
his family from a chilly spring day when bullets shattered their
lives. They don't have keys for that.