Federal judge frees would-be Reagan assassin

“Many people may ask,” CBS reporter Paula Reid notes, “how is it possible that you can shoot four people, including a US president, and then walk free?” Unfortunately, anyone who followed this case knew that the day would come when the justice system would permanently release would-be Ronald Reagan assassin John Hinckley from his medical detention, thanks to the success of his insanity plea in 1981. Today, despite the mayhem Hinckley caused for the nation and his four victims, a federal judge made it official — albeit with some conditions:

A federal judge has granted John Hinckley, Jr., the man who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981, full-time release from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he has been in treatment since the shooting.

Judge Paul L. Friedman delivered the ruling Wednesday, granting Hinckley, now 61 years old, full time convalescent leave to begin no sooner than Aug. 5.

CBS News’ Paula Reid reports that St. Elizabeth’s Hospital has a constitutional obligation to transition patients to outpatient care when they are ready. This case is not about the merits of whether an individual should be able to shoot four people, including a sitting U.S. president, and then be able to spend the last third of his life a free man. The hospital believes he is ready for this next step to independent living and is required by law to advocate for his release.

Hinckley has been half-out already for the last three years, spending 17 days per month at his mother’s residence. We noted this two years ago, when his attorneys first began petitioning for his full release two years ago. Thanks to the insanity-defense laws at the time of the assassination attempt — which, as Reid reminds us, were changed because of Hinckley’s success in using them — his release was all but inevitable. The wonder might be that it’s taken 35 years to effect.

The Department of Justice will keep an eye on Hinckley, and presumably so will the Secret Service, but the conditions placed on his release are hardly onerous. He has to carry a GPS-enabled smartphone while outside of the house, but has no other tracking systems placed on him. Hinckley has to conduct weekly conference calls with his treatment team, has to travel to DC for treatment once a month, and can’t move out of his mother’s house for one year — or more than 30 miles outside of Williamsburg after that. No media contacts, no contact with victims, no Googling his victims or himself as well as bars on weapons research and pornography, and no social-media accounts without getting unanimous approval from his treatment team, or presumably Hinckley would get recommitted.

Friedman issued a detailed, 103-page opinion in addition to his order that claims that Hinckley’s main mental illnesses “have been in full and sustained remission for well over twenty years, perhaps more than 27 years.” Friedman also found that the preponderance of evidence on potential danger for others and/or Hinckley himself shows that “Mr. Hinckley presents no danger to himself or to others in the reasonable future.” After having received the “maximum benefits possible in the in-patient setting” — a phrase sure to rankle the victims and their families — Friedman says it’s time to let Hinckley out on supervised “convalescent leave.”

Hopefully, he’s correct about the danger posed to others from this release. But there’s no getting around the fact that a miscarriage of justice occurred to allow this release at all, especially given the nature of the shooting and the far-reaching consequences a presidential assassination would have produced.

Addendum: Michael Reagan offered a remarkable thought on hearing the news:

Obviously he doesn’t speak for all the victims and families, but it’s definitely food for thought.