The last man to shoot a US president could soon be free

John Hinckley
John W. Hinckley Jr. is shown in this undated photo. (AP Photo)

John Hinckley has lived a shockingly normal life the past year, especially for someone who shot a US president and spends much of his time in a psychiatric hospital.

He already spends 17 days a month at his mother’s house, away from the hospital where he’s been committed for shooting president Ronald Reagan.

Now, the hospital has formally petitioned for Hinckley’s complete release.

“Every witness agrees that he’s ready and every witness agrees that the risk of danger is decidedly low,” Hinckley’s lawyer Barry William Levine told the court on Tuesday, according to NPR.

In 1981, Hinckley, then 25, shot President Ronald Reagan, press secretary James Brady, and two others in an attempt to impress actress Jodi Foster, whom Hinckley became obsessed with after seeing “Taxi Driver.” The next year, a jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity, sentencing him to psychiatric treatment, which he has undergone for more than 30 years.

Reagan survived with one shot to the lung, just barely avoiding his heart. In 2014, however, a medical examiner ruled Brady’s death, at age 73, a homicide and that it occurred as a direct result of the gunshot wound he suffered decades earlier. Hinckley, however, avoided murder charges.

But the psychosis and depression that fuelled Hinckley’s violence, his lawyer argues, according to NPR, has dissipated. Even the government’s experts think Hinckley might deserve release — with appropriate supervision.

“We all know that Mr. Hinckley is not any person and he never will be,” Assistant US Attorney Colleen Kennedy said, NPR reports. Hinckley accomplished a feat no other person in US history has: shooting a president without death or prison time.

Doubts against Hinckley’s recovery exist though. For example, in a 1987 journal entry, Hinckley wrote his psychiatrists would “never know the true John Hinckley,” the Associated Press reports, hinting at a history of deceptive behaviour. As recent as 2011, the Secret Service, which frequently follows Hinckley on stints about town, reported that he went to Barnes & Noble to look at books about Reagan instead of going to see a movie.

Regardless of these potential red flags, in 2013, a federal judge ruled that Hinckley could have extended visits to his mother’s home for up to 17 days a month. There, Hinckley drives around in a Toyota, going to dinner and movies. Those cushy circumstances, coupled with psychiatry appointments and volunteer work, mean to prepare Hinckley for freedom.

Healing John Hinckley
In this photo taken March 19, 2015, golfers enjoy the 14th hole in front of a luxury home in the Kingsmill resort in Williamsburg, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The hospital has proposed Hinckley’s doctors should award his full release after completing two 17-day and six 24-day visits to his mother’s place, CBS reports. The judge, however, seems reluctant to give his doctors the power to determine his fate.

Lawrence Fitch, a professor of mental health law at the University of Maryland called these terms “stricter” than parole and said in these circumstances, people are closely watched to make sure they receive continued treatment. As a result, the “recidivism rate tends to be low,” he told CBS.

Under Supreme Court precedent, according to NPR, the judge must give Hinckley, now 59, the least restrictive conditions while still protecting public safety. The judge, however, gave no timeline for his decision.

Aside from shocking the nation, Hinckley crime and sentence served as a milestone for the “insanity defence” as well as leading to the passage of the Brady Bill, a landmark control on the purchase of firearms in the United States.

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