Time to Let John Hinckley Go?
John Hinckley is a political prisoner. Or, at the very least, he is a prisoner of politics.
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the shootings of President Ronald Reagan; Reagan's press secretary, James Brady; a police officer; and a Secret Service agent in 1981 outside the Washington Hilton.
Hinckley has been locked up at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a vast, mostly abandoned mental facility in Washington, since 1982.
Since 1985, Hinckley's doctors have been saying that his psychosis and major depression are in "full remission."
Every few years, Hinckley makes the news because he requests permission to make visits outside St. Elizabeths, his doctors agree, the Justice Department always objects, and a judge usually sides with Hinckley.
In a ruling released Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman disregarded the objections of prosecutors and said Hinckley is not, under the proper conditions, a danger to himself or others and should be free to spend more time outside St. Elizabeths and even get driver training so that he can someday get a license.
Next Monday will mark the 27th anniversary of Hinckley's confinement. By way of comparison, murderers in America serve only about 12 years, on average.
Insanity is an extremely rare defense — used in less than 1 percent of felony cases as near as I can determine — and successful only about 25 percent of the time.
One of Hinckley's friends in St. Elizabeths was Leslie deVeau, who was sent there in 1982 after she shot and killed her sleeping 10-year-old daughter with a shotgun and then, in a botched suicide attempt, blew off her own left arm. She and Hinckley met at a dance at St. Elizabeths and at one time considered themselves engaged. DeVeau was released from St. Elizabeths in 1985 and from outpatient supervision in 1990.
That's right: A woman who killed her 10-year-old with a shotgun was released from St. Elizabeths after only three years, but Hinckley still sits there after nearly 27 years, even though he didn't kill anybody.
The difference? Hinckley shot the president of the United States.
Sara Jane Moore, who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford, was released from prison late last year after serving 32 years of a life sentence. Lynette Alice "Squeaky" Fromme, who also tried to assassinate Ford (her gun did not go off) is still in a federal prison after 33 years.
Both women were found guilty of their crimes.
Federal prosecutors recently argued that Hinckley should not spend more time outside St. Elizabeths because he was having sex with women, and such sex could cause "increased risk for violence due to depression or due to a request to act out to demonstrate his love for a woman."
The point of the prosecutors is that Hinckley shot Reagan because he wanted to get the attention of actress Jodie Foster and that Hinckley could "act out" again to get some other woman's attention.
But Judge Friedman ruled that Hinckley — after nearly three decades of treatment — "will not be a danger to himself or others under the conditions proposed by the hospital." Hinckley has to carry a GPS-equipped cell phone, for instance. And the Secret Service tails him whenever he leaves the hospital anyway.
There is a great irony in all this: While prosecutors once strenuously argued that Hinckley was perfectly sane and therefore deserved to be convicted, they now argue that he is absolutely insane and deserves to be locked away indefinitely.
I have no problem with locking up people for long periods of time — or even forever — if they attempt to assassinate presidents and are found guilty of their crimes.
But what is the purpose of locking somebody in a mental hospital after his mental condition has been in remission for nearly 25 years and after he has been found to be no danger to himself and others under conditions that can be maintained outside a hospital?
We know the purpose. The purpose is politics. Nobody wants to be the guy who lets John Hinckley go free. It would cause a huge firestorm of criticism.
Ronald Reagan Jr. told The New York Times in 2003 that his father had forgiven Hinckley. "He made peace with it," Reagan said. "He forgave this crazy young man."
Others can't. Others won't.
Former U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova, the prosecutor who failed to convict Hinckley, said years ago that he opposed Hinckley's getting out of St. Elizabeths even for short visits "because we do not believe that anyone who tries to nullify a national election with a bullet deserves the privilege of moving freely in a civilized society."
But Hinckley was insane when he fired that gun. A jury said so. And we are a nation of laws, a civilized society. And civilized societies try to cure insane people. And when those people are cured to the extent that they are no longer a danger, they are released.
Unless they are political prisoners, that is.
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