Don't Let Hinckley Roam Free

  • 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?

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