Freedom Is Too Good for Hinckley

Thirty years after he shot my father Ronald Reagan, he spends one-third of the year as a (mostly) free man

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Ron Edmonds / AP

On March 30, 1981, AP photographer Ron Edmonds made pictures of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan that would earn him the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.

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Hinckley is now allowed to visit his mother in Williamsburg (his father is deceased) for 10-day stays 12 times a year. He's been given permission to obtain a driver's license and get a job. He reportedly does volunteer work in the library at the state mental hospital in Williamsburg. He's required to stay at his mother's house and to always be accompanied by her or a sibling when he goes out. (His mother is 85, and his siblings live in Dallas.) He must carry a GPS-enabled cell phone. Hinckley has expressed his wish to someday settle down in Williamsburg.

"Every time he gets out for a 10-day period," Sarah Brady says, "I get a call so I know to not go to Williamsburg then." She and Jim live nearby, in Delaware. "I love going there. But I obviously don't want to cross paths with John Hinckley."

Tim McCarthy is the police chief in Orland Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb. He's told the government to stop calling him whenever Hinckley leaves St. Elizabeths. "I told them, 'If he comes to Illinois, call me. Otherwise, I don't want to hear about him.'" Two of his three children were 2 and 4 in 1981. They too are victims. Friends took his wife to the hospital on that horrible day, no one knowing if Tim would live. "No one should have to go through what the families went through," he says.

My mother, for her part, remembers the noise and chaos of the hospital that day and a nurse coming in to tell her that time was running out to find the bullet in my father's chest.

Tom Delahanty has remained mostly out of reach. Tim McCarthy used to keep in touch with him, but then Tom stopped calling back. "I think it must be hard for him, living with what happened," Tim says. (I attempted to contact Tom for this article but never got a response.)

The plan for Hinckley's ultimate freedom has been in place for years. His attorney is as patient as his client. Short visits, then longer ones, then complete release. And there is this: because Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, the law states, if it is determined that he is sane, no danger to himself or others, he must be set free. Judge Friedman can make the decision for his release, just as he decided in favor of unsupervised visits. "There's no predicting human behavior," Tim McCarthy says. "And guns are easier to get in Virginia. If he is released, I hope they know what they're doing." So Hinckley might in time reside as a free man in Williamsburg, stopping at the local coffee shop, browsing bookstores, maybe venturing onto the local tennis courts and golf courses.

Jim Brady will live the rest of his life in a wheelchair and a bed. Sarah will tend to him as she has done for the past 30 years. His son will continue to make up for the years when he was frightened to go near him. Tim McCarthy will avoid talking about that awful day while always bumping up against it. Tom Delahanty will stay out of reach, forever scarred. My mother will hear the echoes of that day and remember the deathly paleness of my father's skin.

Time is a matter of perspective. Sometimes 30 years isn't so long. There are times when the American legal system works brilliantly. There are times when it fails. The story of John Hinckley should always include this: As far as the victims are concerned, he beat the legal system. He had wealthy parents who bought him a tenacious lawyer. Neither Levine nor Hinckley will be awakened in the night by Jim Brady's screams. Sarah Brady will go to her husband, night after night, and remember a time before Hinckley loaded his gun with exploding bullets and aimed to kill.

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