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Don't let Hinckley roam free

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Reagan's daughter tells why his attacker's day-trips are a menace to society

April 10, 2000
Web posted at: 12:45 p.m. EDT (1645 GMT)

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 actions."

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.


Cover Date: April 17, 2000



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