A federal judge said Monday that John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan four decades ago, can be freed from all remaining restrictions next year if he continues to follow those rules and remains mentally stable.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman in Washington said during a 90-minute court hearing that he’ll issue his ruling on the plan this week.
Since Hinckley moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, from a Washington hospital in 2016, court-imposed restrictions have required doctors and therapists to oversee his psychiatric medication and therapy. Hinckley has been barred from having a gun. And he can’t contact Reagan’s children, other victims or their families, or actress Jodie Foster, who he was obsessed with at the time of the 1981 shooting.
Friedman said Hinckley, now 66, has displayed no symptoms of active mental illness, no violent behavior and no interest in weapons since 1983.
“If he hadn't tried to kill the president, he would have been unconditionally released a long, long, long time ago," the judge said. “But everybody is comfortable now after all of the studies, all of the analysis and all of the interviews and all of the experience with Mr. Hinckley."
Friedman said the plan is to release Hinckley from all court supervision in June.
A 2020 violence risk assessment conducted on behalf of Washington’s Department of Behavioral Health concluded that Hinckley would not pose a danger if he's unconditionally released.
The U.S. government had previously opposed ending restrictions. But it recently retained an independent expert to examine Hinckley and took a different position Monday, with attorneys saying they would agree to unconditional release if Hinckley follows the rules and shows mental stability for the next nine months.
“Contrary to the judge’s decision, 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. “Our hope is that the Justice Department will file a motion with the court leading to a reversal of this decision.”
Kacie Weston, an attorney for the U.S. government, said it wants to make sure Hinckley can adapt to living on his own for the first time in 40 years.
He recently moved out of his mother's house, which sits along a golf course in a gated community in Williamsburg. She died in July. Attorneys did not say where Hinckley is currently living.
“Mr. Hinckley does have a history of turning inward and toward isolation," Weston said.
Another concern is the impending retirement of one of Hinckley's therapists and the looming end to a therapy group, which has provided much support and social interaction. Weston said Hinckley will likely face challenges finding a similar group in the future.
“All we have to do is wait a few more months and see," Weston said. “And we’ll have actual hard data. We’ll have information in real time to see how Mr. Hinckley adapts."
Hinckley was 25 when he shot and wounded the 40th U.S. president outside a Washington hotel. The shooting paralyzed Reagan press secretary James Brady, who died in 2014. It also injured Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty.
Hinckley did not attend Monday's hearing. But Barry Levine, his attorney, said Hinckley wanted to express his “heartfelt” apologies and “profound regret" to the people he shot and their families as well as to Foster and the American people.
“Perhaps it is too much to ask for forgiveness," Levine said. “But we hope they have an understanding that the acts that caused him to do this terrible thing (were caused by) mental illness."
Hinckley was suffering from acute psychosis. When jurors found him not guilty by reason of insanity, they said he needed treatment and not a lifetime in confinement.
Such an acquittal meant that Hinckley could not be blamed or punished for what he did, legal experts have said. Hinckley was ordered to live at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington.
In the 2000s, Hinckley began making visits to his parents’ home in Williamsburg. A 2016 court order granted him permission to live with his mom full time after experts said his mental illness had been in remission for decades.
Presidential historian Matt Dallek of George Washington University says the mental health care and defense mounted by Hinckley will be part of his legacy.
“The argument from his lawyer and I think some of the people who think this is the right decision, including the judge, is that with the right interventions, someone can become productive,” Dallek said.
Friedman, the judge, has loosened some of Hinckley’s restrictions over the years. For instance, Hinckley was granted the right to publicly display his artwork and allowed to move out of his mother’s house. But he’s still barred from traveling to places where he knows there will be someone protected by the Secret Service.
Hinckley must give three days’ notice if he wants to travel more than 75 miles from home. He also has to turn over passwords for computers, phones and online accounts such as email.
In recent years, Hinckley has sold items from a booth at an antique mall that he’s found at estate sales, flea markets and consignment shops. He’s also shared his music on YouTube.
“I would hope that people will see this as a victory for mental health," Levine, Hinckley's attorney, said Monday. “That is the real message in this case — that people who have been ravaged by mental disease, with good support and access to treatment, can actually become productive members of society."