WHEN JOHN W. HINCKLEY JR. SHOT PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN to win fame and impress the actress Jodie Foster in March 1981, he caused appalling damage. He wounded a Washington, D.C., police officer and a Secret Service agent, left Reagan's well-liked press secretary James Brady with severe brain damage, and nearly killed the president.
At Hinckley's trial for attempted assassination and other crimes, both the prosecution and the defense depicted him as bizarre, miserable, and repellant. He was a deceitful, suicidal loner who wrote creepy poems with unsettling titles ("Guns Are Fun!"). He fantasized that he was living out the movie Taxi Driver, which featured Foster as Iris, a preteen prostitute; he modeled himself after the volatile character of Travis Bickle, the cabdriver who shoots Iris's pimp and is treated as a hero.
Both sides at the trial also agreed that Hinckley, the son of a wealthy oil-and-gas man, was mentally ill at the time of the shooting. But they disputed whether or not he was legally insane—unable to grasp that his conduct was wrong or to live within the bounds of the law. William Carpenter, the defense's lead psychiatrist, testified that Hinckley was cut off from reality and had other symptoms so grave that he shouldn't be held legally responsible for his actions. After a six-week trial, the jury sided with the defense. Instead of being consigned to prison for life, Hinckley was sent to Washington's St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he has spent the past two decades.
Individual responsibility is one of the foundations of American law. People are liable for the actions they intend to take. Until the Hinckley verdict, the insanity defense was a narrow corollary to that rule, providing that actions taken as a result of a mental illness didn't give rise to liability. It strengthened our justice system's moral authority to hold accountable criminals who could prove no such defense. That an earnest jury acquitted the president's would-be assassin after an exemplary trial, despite the unpopularity of the verdict, was a feat of the American system worth honoring.
Instead, the public directed its outrage at Hinckley against the insanity defense, blaming the legal standard for letting off the man who shot the president. The insanity defense became a target of demagoguery and vengeance. Leading conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, argued that eliminating it would keep dangerous people off the streets and boost safety. An ensuing wave of federal and state restrictions on the defense made it harder for insanity defendants to be acquitted, easier for them to be committed to state custody if they are, and harder for them to be released once they are put away.
In Rush to Reform in the Post-Hinckley Era, the social scientist Henry Steadman and his colleagues rebutted the law-and-order critics, finding that the defense had succeeded in only about one-quarter of 1 percent of all criminal cases, based on a study of eight states over 12 years. The defense clearly posed no risk to public safety. Even abolishing the defense, as the Reagan Administration tried and failed to do, would have had a trifling payoff in security, the later research showed.
Yet the prosecution's defeat in the Hinckley case led to a redefinition of justice. A year after the verdict, the Supreme Court said that while insanity acquittees aren't legally responsible, they also aren't guiltless—and they can be held in a hospital far longer than they would have been held in a prison if convicted. The insanity defense had been a symbol of fairness and consistency in the law, which since biblical times had discharged from moral blame anyone not able to tell right from wrong. It was reduced to an asterisk.
Recently, with support from St. Elizabeths, Hinckley asked for a "limited conditional release." Over the government's objections, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman allowed Hinckley to start making day visits in his parents' custody in the Washington area and perhaps step up to overnight visits away from D.C.
Hinckley continues to suffer from a "psychotic disorder," the judge found, but his mental illness has been in remission for at least 10 years. While Hinckley has lied on occasion, he has neither engaged in violent behavior nor attempted suicide for over 20 years. Supervised by the hospital, he has "successfully" been on over 200 "outings in the community." As the judge put it, "every medical expert who testified" seconded the hospital's evaluation that, "under appropriate conditions," he "will not be a danger to himself or others."
Hinckley has likely been confined much longer than he would have if he had tried to kill anyone but the president. Now he has been tentatively allowed back into a society that, since his acquittal, has blamed him as fully as if he had been convicted.