John Hinckley Steps Toward Freedom

Apr 20, 2015 - by Denise Noe

In 1981, John Hinckley Jr. was a 25-year-old man suffering from major delusions who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan for the singularly bizarre reason that he hoped this action would impress actress Jodie Foster. 

Reagan survived Hinckley’s bullets, as did others shot that day. However, White House Press Secretary James Brady would be left permanently disabled.

Today, Hinckley is a man in his late 50s who divides his time between St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. and his mother’s spacious house in a gated community in Williamsburg, Virginia.

In 2013, U.S. District judge Paul L. Friedman ruled that he could spend 17 days out of each month in freedom with his mother, Jo Ann Hinckley, 89, after doctors testified that the major depression and psychosis which led Hinckley to attack a president have been in remission for decades.

Physicians acknowledged that the attempted assassin still has narcissistic personality disorder, but said his psychological improvement meant his potential for violence is “decidedly low.”

During those regularly scheduled 17 days per month of freedom, Hinckley now keeps a resolutely low profile, doing nothing to draw attention to himself. Indeed, he tends to wear a hat or visor when going out of his mom’s home, to make himself less recognizable.

When home, he pursues longtime hobbies of playing guitar and painting. He also takes walks and sometimes patronizes a restaurant. He drives a Toyota, but, because where he can go is restricted by court order, can only drive to places if people are expecting him there and, of course, must avoid places where the president or congressional representatives might be.

On Wednesday, April 22, 2015, court hearings will take place to determine whether or not he may be allowed even more time in the free world. In fact, the hearing could decide that he no longer needs to spend any time at St. Elizabeth’s facility.

The vast majority of mental health experts believe that it’s possible for criminals like Hinckley, who have been violent because of delusions, to be reintegrated into society without threatening other people -- if this reintegration is done in gradual steps and monitored closely and carefully, as is being done with Hinckley.

Hinckley’s notoriety continues to pose special problems though: To make progress in readjusting to the free world, mental health experts counseled Hinckley to perform volunteer work. However, due to his infamy, several organizations rejected the idea that the man who shot President Reagan would work for them.

Librarian Sandra Kochersperger of the Eastern State Hospital, acknowledged that “not everyone was real happy about” having Hinckley volunteer there either. But, she found him acceptable and states, “He was in a totally different mind at that time [1981]. He was psychotic.”

Eastern State specializes in the treatment of the mentally ill; Hinckley served as a volunteer at the institution making copies of documents and shelving books.

Wednesday’s hearing will determine whether or not he will be allowed even more such freedoms. It can only be hoped that careful monitoring by mental health experts will keep John Hinckley safe from delusion and society safe from him.

DENISE NOE

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