Has Hinckley Outgrown His Straitjacket?

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It's not hard to see why people would have serious reservations about letting John Hinckley wander freely through the Washington, D.C., suburbs. This is the man, after all, who shot four men, including President Ronald Reagan, outside a Hilton hotel in 1981, in a desperate cry for attention from the object of his obsession at the time, actress Jodie Foster. While no one has quite figured out how Hinckley established a causative connection between Reagan's death and Foster's affections, doctors report there have been significant breakthroughs during the would-be assassin's 18-year incarceration in the psychiatric ward of St. Elizabeth's Hospital. In fact, the hospital is so pleased with his progress that they are recommending he be allowed to make unsupervised visits to his parents' nearby home; this sort of venture is generally seen as a precursor to eventual release. Hinckley has never left hospital grounds without an escort since he arrived in 1982.

But is he ready? Many think not, including the U.S. attorney's District of Columbia office, which on Tuesday called for a federal court hearing over the proposal. When Hinckley was tried for his actions in 1981, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. This means, of course, that his ultimate freedom depends on doctors' assessment of his mental health. In this week's TIME magazine, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis published a plea to keep Hinckley in custody, saying "I believe [he] knew full well what evil is; I believe he was drawn to it, excited by it. I believe he that he still may be." As Davis points out in her essay, the insanity defense is tricky, because as it strips the accused of his guilt, it also negates his personhood. The dilemma that follows pits the intellectual capacity of the individual against that of his "healers": Hinckley's doctors are confident their patient has exorcised his demons — but the only person who knows if that's the case for sure is Hinckley himself. And from where he's sitting, the reasons for lying may be a whole lot more compelling than those for telling the truth.