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Judge: Reagan shooter can leave hospital to live in Virginia

In this March 19, 2015 file photo, John Hinckley gets into his mother's car in front of a recreation center in Williamsburg, Va. A judge says Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan will be allowed to leave a Washington mental hospital and live full-time in Virginia. | Steve Helber/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — More than 35 years after he tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster, John Hinckley Jr. will be allowed to leave a Washington psychiatric hospital and live full time with his mother in Virginia, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Judge Paul Friedman wrote in a 14-page ruling and accompanying 103-page opinion that Hinckley — who currently spends more than half his days at his mother’s home — is ready to live full time in the community. Friedman granted Hinckley leave from the hospital starting no sooner than Aug. 5.

Doctors have said for many years that Hinckley, 61, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting, is no longer plagued by the mental illness that drove him to shoot Reagan. The March 30, 1981, shooting outside a Washington hotel endangered Reagan’s life, but he recovered after undergoing emergency surgery. He died in 2004 at 93.

Three others were wounded, including Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady. He suffered debilitating injuries and died in 2014. Brady’s death was later ruled a homicide, but prosecutors said they would not charge Hinckley with murder, in part because they would be barred from arguing he was sane at the time of the shooting. Also wounded were Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, now the police chief in Orland Park, Illinois; and Thomas Delahanty, a Washington D.C. police officer.

Police and Secret Service agents react during the March 30, 1981, assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was hit by one of six shots fired by John Hinckley Jr. Reagan was hit in the chest and was hospitalized for 12 days. Hinckley w
Police and Secret Service agents react during the March 30, 1981, assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was hit by one of six shots fired by John Hinckley Jr. Reagan was hit in the chest and was hospitalized for 12 days. Hinckley was acquitted in June 1982, after a jury found him mentally unstable. | Mike Evens/AFP/Getty Images

Hinckley was a “profoundly troubled 25-year-old young man” when he shot Reagan, but his mental illnesses — major depression and psychotic disorder — have been in remission for more than 27 years, Friedman wrote.

“Mr. Hinckley, by all accounts, has shown no signs of psychotic symptoms, delusional thinking, or any violent tendencies,” the judge wrote in his opinion. “The court finds that Mr. Hinckley has received the maximum benefits possible in the inpatient setting [and] that inpatient treatment is no longer clinically warranted or beneficial.”

McCarthy, who took a bullet to the chest after stepping into the line of fire to protect the president, was somewhat incredulous Wednesday about the judge’s decision.

“This is a man who murdered one person, Jim Brady, shot the president of the United States and almost killed him and shot two others. I hope they know what they’re doing when they release a person like this. Psychiatry is not an exact science,” McCarthy said.

“Can they say with absolute certainty that this man is 100 percent cured and poses no threat? If they could, I probably wouldn’t feel too bad about it,” McCarthy said. “But no one has ever communicated that to me. They had better be right about what they’re doing.”

Hinckley’s release from Washington’s St. Elizabeths Hospital has been more than a decade in the making. In late 2003, the judge allowed Hinckley to begin leaving the hospital for day visits with his parents in the Washington area.

In 2006, Hinckley began visiting his parents’ home in Williamsburg, Virginia, for three-night stretches. That time has increased over the years so that for the past two-plus years he has been allowed to spend 17 days a month at the house overlooking a golf course in a gated community.

Largely remembered for his boyish mugshot, Hinckley is now a doughy man with graying hair who wears hats or visors when he drives around Williamsburg in a Toyota Avalon, going to movies and fast-food restaurants. He also plays guitar, paints and cares for feral cats.

While outside the hospital, Hinckley has had to comply with a series of restrictions, and some of those will continue now that he will be living full time in the community. He must attend individual and group therapy sessions and is barred from talking to the media. He can drive, but there are restrictions on how far he can travel. The Secret Service also periodically follows him.

John Hinckley Jr. is shown in Sept.16, 1982. | Associated Press
John Hinckley Jr. is shown in Sept.16, 1982. | Associated Press

Despite the restrictions, life in Williamsburg will likely be busy for Hinckley. The judge ordered him to volunteer or work at a paid job at least three days a week. He has sought out work and volunteer opportunities, but so far has been unable to secure employment. According to court records, he has said it was difficult for him to ask for jobs at Starbucks and Subway while being followed by the Secret Service: “It made me feel awkward and uncomfortable.”

According to court records and testimony at a hearing on the issue of his release, he has spent time volunteering at a church as well as a local mental hospital. He has attended meetings for people living with mental illness, talks at a local art museum and concerts. In addition to painting and guitar, he has recently developed an interest in photography.

“I don’t like flipping around the TV, I want to do things,” a court document quoted him saying.

He also has said he wants to “fit in” and be “a good citizen.”

Hinckley must return to Washington once a month for doctors to check on his mental state and his compliance with the conditions of his leave, the judge ruled.

Tim McCarthy, while in the Secret Service, was wounded by John Hinckley during the 1981 assassination attempted against President Ronald Reagan. McCarthy is now police chief of Orland Park. | Sun-Times file photo
Tim McCarthy, while in the Secret Service, was wounded by John Hinckley during the 1981 assassination attempted against President Ronald Reagan. McCarthy is now police chief of Orland Park. | Sun-Times file photo

He also will be barred from trying to contact Foster, all relatives of Reagan and Brady or the other two victims, Delahanty and McCarthy, and their families.

He will have to live with his mother for a year. After that, he will have the freedom to live on his own, with roommates or in a group home in the Williamsburg area. If his 90-year-old mother, Joann, is unable to monitor him, his brother or sister have agreed to stay with him until other arrangements are made. Hinckley’s father died in 2008.

Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a past president of the American Psychiatric Association, said a strong family support system is critical for people like Hinckley as they reintegrate back into society.

“In some sense, the change from being out 17 days a month and being out 30 days a month is not all that great,” Appelbaum said. “What would be a tremendous change would be living with your mother as opposed to living on your own for the first time in more than 35 years.”

Some of the conditions of his leave could be eliminated or reduced within 12 to 18 months, but if he violates the remaining conditions, he still could be taken back to the hospital.

Hinckley’s longtime attorney, Barry Levine, said he and his client were gratified by the order, and that Hinckley has thrived under his new liberties.

“Mr. Hinckley recognizes that what he did was horrific. But it’s crucial to understand that what he did was not an act of evil,” Levine said in a statement. “It was an act caused by mental illness, an illness from which he no longer suffers.”

Prosecutors had consistently opposed Hinckley’s efforts to gain more freedom, citing what they called a history of deceptive behavior. In July 2011, prosecutors said, Hinckley was supposed to go see a movie and instead went to a Barnes & Noble, where Secret Service agents saw him looking at shelves that contained books about Reagan and the assassination attempt. He didn’t pick up any of the books.

Reaction to his release was mixed.

McCarthy questioned why neither he, nor any of the other victims or the victims’ families were ever called to ask their opinion of Hinckley’s release.

“I would have appreciated the courtesy of a call. But more importantly, was Mrs. Brady called? Was anyone from the Reagan family or the Delahanty family called? It should have been and could have been done, but it wasn’t,” McCarthy said.

“Mrs. Brady lost her husband after he was under care for 35 years. But they never bothered to talk to her,” he said. “I’m not angry. But the way they’ve gone about it could have been improved. John Hinckley shot the President of the United States. He killed a man and shot two others. Is this the appropriate outcome? Some of the people really affected should have been been asked.”

The late president’s son, Michael Reagan, tweeted that others should forgive Hinckley the way his father did. But Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, wrote on Facebook that “forgiving someone in your heart doesn’t [mean] that you let them loose in Virginia to pursue whatever dark agendas they may still hold dear.”

The foundation that honors Reagan’s legacy said Hinckley should remain in custody, noting his responsibility for Brady’s death.

“We believe John Hinckley is still a threat to others and we strongly oppose his release,” the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute said in a statement.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, declined to offer an opinion on Hinckley’s release but used the occasion to call for background checks for all gun sales, which Reagan supported. He noted in a statement that it would be “just as easy” for a would-be assassin to buy a gun today as it was for Hinckley.

Contributing: Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times; Associated Press writers Sarah Brumfield and Jessica Gresko in Washington and Alanna Durkin Richer in Richmond, Va.