John Hinckley was at the center of one of the most infamous crimes of the 20th century — and, in the eyes of many, one of the most infamous court verdicts. In 1981, he shot President Ronald Reagan and three other people. In his trial, he was found not guilty — by reason of insanity.
This month, after 40 years that included psychiatric confinement, extensive treatment and supervised release, he will be a free man. A federal judge granted him an unconditional release, declaring that Hinckley, now 67, is “no longer a danger to himself or others.”
Reagan, his lung punctured by a bullet, narrowly escaped death. The attack was a bizarre attempt by Hinckley to win the favor of actress Jodie Foster, the object of his pathological obsession. Just before the shootings, he wrote a letter pleading, “Jodie, I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love.”
He was, in lay terms, a complete whacko. After an eight-week trial, a jury recognized as much. Instead of going to prison for the rest of his life, he was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Doctors diagnosed him with psychosis and major depression and said he remained dangerous.
The surprise outcome of the trial provoked shock and outrage. An ABC News poll found that 83% of Americans thought “justice was not done.”
It was a rare instance of an acquittal based on mental illness. But instead of recognizing that the law worked as it should, many people were reinforced in their belief that even the most deranged lunatics should be treated with uncompromising severity.
Congress passed measures making it much harder to mount an insanity defense. Some states provided for a new verdict, “guilty but mentally ill,” which carried the same sentences as any other conviction. Three states abolished the insanity defense altogether.
The common view was that violent people, regardless of mental infirmity, should not escape the harshest consequences.
But Hinckley’s rehabilitation should be seen as a success. Unlike most mentally ill offenders, Hinckley got plenty of treatment — and it worked.
“He has been in full, sustained remission for more than 25 years,” said U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman Wednesday. “He has followed every condition imposed by the court.”
The outcome will infuriate those who regard the insanity defense as an abomination. But the real injustice is that Hinckley didn’t go free sooner. “If he hadn’t attempted to kill President Reagan, this guy would have been released ages ago,” Stephen J. Morse, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and psychiatry, has said.
By now, the decision is almost anticlimactic. In 2016, the court approved Hinckley’s discharge from the psychiatric hospital. He was allowed to live with his elderly mother as long as he complied with some rules.
But even then, the decision evoked bitter reactions. Candidate Donald Trump assailed it, and Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, claimed that Hinckley’s only regret was that he failed to kill the president — something she couldn’t possibly know.
There’s no doubt that serious mental illness can produce grave crimes. Since the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, many politicians and activists have argued that psychiatric disorders deserve the blame for mass shootings.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said, “We as a state — we as a society — need to do a better job with mental health.” Federal law says anyone “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution” may not buy or own guns.
But if the seriously mentally ill are deemed incompetent to handle firearms, how can they be deemed fully responsible for any crimes they commit in the grip of madness? Punishing a deranged person for his crimes makes about as much sense as punishing a hypothermia victim for shivering.
In these cases, it makes far more sense to treat the offender’s mental illness than to put him in a cage for years or decades. For criminals with functional brains, prison may be a fair punishment and a powerful deterrent. For offenders enslaved by mental illness, however, it amounts to pointless cruelty.
Hinckley committed a horrible crime, but from all evidence, the person who shot four people in 1981 is not the one who will gain his freedom this month. We should take heart that someone who fell into the depths of depravity found his way back.