Reagan shooter Hinckley to seek freedom at hearing

John Hinckley, seen in 2003, has been allowed brief furloughs from a Washington mental hospital to visit his mother.

Story highlights

  • Letter by mother's neighbor expresses unease about possible release
  • After John Hinckley shot Reagan, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity
  • Hearing may determine whether to eventually free him from mental hospital
  • Hinckley doctors: He's in remission; federal doctors: he's "capable of great violence"
On the day he shot President Ronald Reagan, 25-year-old John Hinckley Jr. left in his hotel room a letter addressed to young actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was infatuated. The letter began:
"Dear Jodie. There is a definite possibility I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan."
But on March 30, 1981, Hinckley survived. His gun empty after he fired six shots at the president in less than two seconds, Hinckley was tackled by police and Secret Service agents. He was rushed away and all but disappeared into custody for the past three decades.
On Wednesday, a federal judge will begin a week and half of hearings on whether Hinckley eventually should be released from the mental hospital where he has been a patient since his 1982 trial ended in a jury verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Doctors at St. Elizabeth Hospital, a federal mental facility in Washington, have petitioned the court for approval to grant Hinckley convalescent leave if all goes well in series of extended visits to his mother's home.
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Hinckley is now 56, his hair turning gray. In the last court hearing two years ago, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman acknowledged hospital doctors' testimony that his mental problems were in remission.
The court has steadily granted Hinckley greater freedoms over the years.
The government's response for the hearing describes Hinckley as "a man capable of great violence" and argues that there are still concerns "that this violence may be repeated."
His mother, JoAnn Hinckley, a widow who is now 85 but in good health, lives in a gated resort development near the James River in historic Williamsburg, Virginia. Hinckley has been allowed several visits in recent years.
A next-door neighbor, signing as T. Richardson, wrote a month ago in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, The Virginia Gazette, that upon moving in during the 1980s, Mrs. Hinckley phoned to say that "They would never bring John to Williamsburg."
Yet, the letter writer said, Hinckley had been allowed to roam the streets alone on long walks during those recent visits. Hinckley's proposed release, the writer concluded, "is not terribly reassuring to me living next door."
Opinion piece by Hinckley neighbor
Much of the eight-day hearing will involve contrasting testimony from psychiatrists on either side, as did Hinckley's trial. Hinckley did not testify then, and whether he will do so this time remains in dispute.
The U.S. attorney's office has told the judge that if Hinckley does take the stand at the hearing, it wants the right to question him. Hinckley's lawyer, Barry S. Levine, replied that Hinckley will testify only if the judge does not allow any cross-examination.
The hospital motion for Hinckley's eventual release was filed under seal, unavailable to the public. However, in answering that, the government said the motion proposes a series of eight new visits of 17 to 24 days each to Hinckley's mother's home.
After that, the government said, the hospital wants "the sole discretion to place Hinckley on convalescent leave" and to do so "without any further review by this court."
No immediate decision is expected during the court hearing. In the past, the judge has taken some time before issuing a written ruling.
Hinckley came within an inch of killing Reagan: That's how close the last bullet came to penetrating the president's heart. The president lost half his blood supply as his left lung was flooded. Had the Secret Service not gotten Reagan to a hospital within minutes, doctors said, he might well have died.
Hinckley wounded a police officer, a Secret Service agent and Press Secretary James Brady before his sixth and final shot ricocheted off the presidential limousine and struck Reagan beneath his left armpit as agents shoved him into the back seat of the vehicle.
Brady, shot in the head, survived against the odds but was so severely injured he was never able to return to his White House duties.
Hinckley had left numerous letters and notes for Foster, a freshman at Yale University, after seeing her in a breakthrough role as a child prostitute in the movie "Taxi Driver."
One of his last notes, shoved under her dorm door a few weeks before he shot Reagan, echoed a line from that movie: "Just wait. I'll rescue you soon."
The day after the shooting, Foster said she did not even know who Hinckley was.