The verdict of "not guilty" for
of insanity in the 1982 trial of John
Hinckley, Jr. for his attempted assassination of President Ronald
stunned and outraged many Americans. An ABC News poll taken the
after the verdict showed 83% of those polled thought "justice was not
in the Hinckley case. Some people--without much
the verdict to an anti-Reagan bias on the part the Washington, D. C.
of eleven blacks and one white. Many more people, however, blamed
a legal system that they claimed made it too easy for juries to return
"not guilty" verdicts in insanity cases--despite the fact that such
were made in only 2% of felony cases and failed over 75% of the
Public pressure resulting from the Hinckley verdict spurred Congress
most states into enacting major
reforms of laws governing the use of the insanity defense.
The Hinckley trial highlights the
a system that forces jurors to label a defendant either "sane" or
when the defendant may in fact be close to the middle on a spectrum
from Star Trek's Mr. Spock to the person who strangles his wife
that he's squeezing a grapefruit. Any objective evaluation of
Hinckley's mental condition shows him to be a troubled young man--not,
as one prosecution witness described him, "a normal, All-American boy."
But how troubled? The prosecution contended that Hinckley
only from "personality disorders" of the type affecting five to ten
of the population, whereas the defense saw the same evidence as
Hinckley's serious mental illness.
The Hinckley trial, perhaps better
than any other
famous trial, reveals the difficulty of ascertaining what exactly is
on in the head of another human being--and then in using that imperfect
knowledge to answer a legal question that reduces complex and changing
mental states to two oversimplified categories.
THE TROUBLED LIFE OF JOHN HINCKLEY
The youngest of three children born to
oil executive and an agoraphobic stay-at-home mother, John Hinckley
an early age was clingy and very dependent upon his mother.
Points, JoAnn and Jack Hinckley's book about their coming to terms
with their son's mental illness, Laura Obolensky writes--too
perhaps--in The New Republic of life inside the affectless
Perhaps it is
fear of what
lies outside that makes the interior of the family so rigid and
like life in a well-run bunker. The world of the Hinckleys was
rootless, middle-class Sunbelt culture that nurtures pro-family values,
Christian fundamentalism, and occasional mass murderers. Families
move frequently, but without compromising their parochialism.
people are white, Christian, Republican (JoAnn explains John's
prejudices by saying he had "never been around people of other races.")
Somewhere outside there are malign elements--minority groups, rock
big government, and the cynical, Godless cosmopolites who dominate the
media. Mothers in this culture do not lavish attention on their
but on their furniture.
Hinckley drifted aimlessly through two
years of college
at Texas Tech, in Lubbock, playing his guitar, listening to music, and
watching television. In the spring of 1976, he dropped out of
and headed for Hollywood, where he hoped--despite a lack of musical
make it as a songwriter.
While in Hollywood Hinckley first
viewed a movie,Taxi
Driver, that seemed to give dramatic content to his misery and
meaning to his life. Fifteen times over the next several years he
watched this tale of a psychotic taxi driver, Travis
Bickle (played by Robert DeNiro), who contemplates political
and then rescues--through violence--a vulnerable young prostitute, Iris
(played by Jodie Foster), from the clutches of her pimp. In the
Hinckley seems to find clues to escape his depression. He
to adopt the dress, preferences, and mannerisms of the Bickle
Like Bickle, Hinckley begins keeping a diary, wearing an army fatigue
and boots, drinking peach brandy, and develops a fascination with
In letters to his parents in Evergreen, Colorado, Hinckley describes a
fabricated relationship with a "Lynn," who shares many characteristics
with Bickle's initial love interest in the movie, a campaign worker
"Betsy" (played by Cybill Shepherd). Most significantly, however,
Hinckley begins a long-term obsession with actress Jodie
In the spring of 1977, admitting
defeat in his
attempt to launch a musical career, Hinckley returned Texas Tech, where
he sporadically attended class and spent most of his time alone.
Over the next two years, Hinckley's parents expressed increasing
to their son about his occupational goals. His depression
Life seemed to lack purpose. In August, 1979, he bought his first
gun and took up target-shooting. Two times that fall he played
Roulette." By Christmas of 1979, fear of facing his family caused him
spend the holiday by himself in Lubbock. A photo
Hinckley took of himself in early 1980 shows him holding a gun to
In the summer of 1980, Hinckley
informed his parents
that he had a new career goal, writing. He asked his parents to
for writing course at Yale. Hinckley never intended to enroll in
writing course; his interest in visiting New Haven centered on one of
undergraduates: Jodie Foster. With $3,600 of his parents' money
promising to work diligently at Yale, Hinckley set off for Connecticut
on September 17.
Not surprisingly, Hinckley failed in
to win the love of Jodie Foster. Too shy to approach her in
Hinckley left letters
and poems in her mailbox and talked to her twice--awkwardly--over
Soon after his disappointment at Yale,
began to stalk President Carter at campaign appearances. In a
period, Hinckley visited three cities where Carter rallies were held:
D. C., Columbus, and Dayton. Although assassinating the President
clearly on his mind, Hinckley explained later that at that time he was
unable to get himself into "a frame of mind where he could actually
out the act." Video taken in Dayton showed Hinckley to have
within twenty feet of the President.
For the next few weeks, Hinckley
continued to fly
frenetically around the country. He reappeared in New Haven,
then flew to Lincoln, Nebraska on October 6, where he hoped to meet
"one of the leading ideologicians" of the American Nazi Party.
hoped-for meeting never took place. From Lincoln it was on to
for another Carter campaign stop. Security officers at the
airport arrested Hinckley for carrying handguns in his suitcase, and
both the guns and handcuffs also found in his luggage. Hinckley
a fine and was released. After yet another short visit to Yale,
flew to Dallas, where he purchased more handguns. Then Hinckley
a flight for Washington, continuing his trailing of Carter.
On October 20, his $3,600 exhausted,
flew home to Colorado, where his parents expressed strong
in his failure to carry out his promises. After Hinckley
on antidepressant medication, the Hinckleys arranged for their son to
with a local psychiatrist, Dr.
John Hopper. Hopper met with Hinckley several times over the
course of the next four months, but learned nothing of Hinckley's
of assassination and little of his obsession with Foster. Hopper
urged JoAnn and Jack Hinckley to push John toward emotional and
Hinckley's mental health did not
it deteriorated. He continued flying across the country to
(where the new President-Elect, Ronald Reagan, was staying), New York
John Lennon had just been assassinated), and New Haven. While in
New York, Hinckley seriously contemplated killing himself in front of
Dakota Hotel, at the exact spot where Lennon had been shot. On
Year's Eve of 1980, Hinckley recorded a deeply disturbing
monologue in which he spoke of not "really" wanting "to hurt" Jodie
Foster, his fears about losing his sanity, and the likelihood of
city" if he failed to win Foster's love.
Hinckley returned to Colorado for his
on March 7, 1981. Jack
Hinckley met John at the Denver airport and told John--having
to obtain a job--he would not be allowed to go home to Evergreen.
Jack Hinckley gave his son $200, which John used to pay for motel rooms
in Denver where he sat alone watching television and reading.
Hinckley--unbeknownst to his
his stays in cheap motels to visit his mother several times. On
Hinckley drove John to the Stapleton Airport in Denver. They
drove in virtual silence. At the curbside in front of the
as he reached for his suitcase John said to his mother, "I want to
you, Mom, for everything you've ever done for me, all these
JoAnn Hinckley felt fear "climb into my throat" as she replied, "You're
After a one-day stay in Hollywood and
trip by Greyhound Bus, Hinckley checked into the Park Central Hotel in
Washington, D. C. on the afternoon of March 29. After a restless
night, Hinckley rose the next morning for a breakfast at
On the way back to the hotel, he picked up the Washington Star.
noticed the President's schedule, on page A-4, indicating that Reagan
be speaking to a labor convention at the Washingon Hilton in just a
of hours. Hinckley showered, took Valium to calm himself, loaded
his twenty-two with exploding Devastator bullets purchased nine months
earlier at a pawn shop in Lubbock, then wrote a letter to Jodie
The Foster letter shed light on the bizarre motive for Hinckley's plan:
a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get
Reagan. It is for this very reason that I am writing you this
well know by now I love you very much. Over the past seven months
I've left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint
that you could develop an interest in me. Although we talked on
phone a couple of times I never had the nerve to simply approach you
introduce myself. Besides my shyness, I honestly did not wish to
bother you with my constant presence. I know the many messages
at your door and in your mailbox were a nuisance, but I felt that it
the most painless way for me to express my love for you.
I feel very good about the fact that you at least know my name and know
how I feel about you. And by hanging around your dormitory, I've
come to realize that I'm the topic of more than a little conversation,
however full of ridicule it may be. At least you know that I'll
Jodie, I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I
only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you, whether
it be in total obscurity or whatever.
I will admit to you that the reason I'm going ahead with this attempt
is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you. I've got
to do something now to make you understand, in no uncertain terms, that
I am doing all of this for your sake! By sacrificing my freedom
possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me. This
is being written only an hour before I leave for the Hilton
Jodie, I'm asking you to please look into your heart and at least give
me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love.
At one-thirty, Hinckley took a cab
a light drizzle to the Hilton.
The President waved to a crowd as he
the hotel entrance at 1:45. Hinckley waved back. At 2:25,
by aides and bodyguards, Reagan left the hotel and began moving towards
his waiting limousine. A voice yelled, "President Reagan,
the President turned in his direction, Hinckley--crouching like a
the six bullets in his gun in rapid succession. The first bullet
tore through the brain of press secretary James Brady. The second
his policeman Thomas Delahanty in the back. The third overshot
President and hit a building. The fourth shot hit secret service
agent Timothy McCarthy in the chest. The fifth shot hit the
glass of the President's limousine.
The sixth and final bullet nearly
killed the President.
As aides rushed to push Reagan into his car, the bullet ricocheted off
the car, then hit the President in the chest, grazed a rib and lodged
his lung, just inches from his heart. At first it was assumed that the
bullet missed the President, and the limousine headed for the White
Within seconds, however, the President began coughing up blood and the
limousine changed course and sped for George Washington University
where the President underwent two hours of life-saving surgery.
Hinckley was still clicking the
trigger on his
twenty-two when secret service agents wrestled him to the ground.
An agent recalled a "desperate feeling of 'I've got to get to it and
it.'" as he came down on Hinckley with his right arm around his head.
With dozens of witnesses and the
on videotape, the government knew as well as John Hinckley's own
Fuller, that the only plausible defense was the insanity
After a brief detention at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia--where
Fuller first met Hinckley--, he was transferred to a federal
in Butner, North Carolina. Fuller informed Hinckley's parents of
the reasons for the move: "They want to do a psychiatric evaluation,
Butner has the facilities." Over the next four months,
for both sides probed nearly every aspect of Hinckley's life.
When the psychiatric reports came in,
no surprises. All the government psychiatrists concluded that
was legally sane--that he appreciated the wrongfulness of his act--at
time of the shooting. All three defense psychiatrists diagnosed
as psychotic--and legally insane--at the time of the
Further evidence of the severity of Hinckley's mental problems came in
May, two days before his twenty-sixth birthday, when he attempted
by overdosing on Valium. In November, he tried again--this time
himself in his cell window.
Hinckley insisted that his lawyers get
to testify in his trial. If they didn't make every effort to do
he said, he would refuse to cooperate in his own defense.
Fuller arranged with Foster's lawyer to have the actress testify in a
session with only the judge, lawyers, and Hinckley present. The
could later be introduced into evidence at the trial. When
received the news he excitedly told his parents, "Mom! Dad! I'll be
there in the same room!"
On March 30, 1982, authorities took
the federal courthouse in Washington for Jodie Foster's videotaped
The testimony sorely disappointed Hinckley, who received not a single
or word on his behalf from Foster. As Foster completed her
Hinckley hurled a ballpoint pen at her and yelled, "I'll get you
Marshals surrounded Hinckley and hauled him from the room.
Jury selection for the Hinckley trial
April 27, 1982. Selected from a pool of ninety potential jurors
eleven blacks and one white, seven women and five men.
The first phase of the prosecution
by the defense, established the obvious: that a shooting had occurred
that Hinckley had done the shooting. Early prosecution witnesses
included two of Hinckley's victims, police officer Thomas Delahanty and
secret service agent Timothy McCarthy, and a neurosurgeon who described
the path of Hinckley's bullet through the brain of James Brady.
Adelman also attempted to show premeditation by introducing video
showing Hinckley's face in a crowd at a Carter campaign rally in Dayton
and producing an attendant at a Colorado rifle range who testified that
Hinckley engaged in target practicing there in December, 1980.
When the prosecution rested its formal
real trial--the insanity trial--began. Defense attorney Vince
opened by asking JoAnn Hinckley about John's childhood, his letters to
home from Texas Tech about the imaginary "Lynn," missing money
stolen by John) from Jack Hinckley's study. In cross-examination
of JoAnn Hinckley, Assistant U. S. Attorney Robert Chapman tried to
through his questions that Hinckley couldn't have been too sick--or his
parents would have known about it. Why, Chapman wanted to know,
JoAnn Hinckley in the months before the shooting tell John's
Dr. Hopper, that "things are fine."
Jack Hinckley testified about his
cut off John's financial support. He told about the day in Denver
when he left him to find a cheap motel and try to make a life: "O.K.,
are on your own. Do whatever you want to do." Jack Hinckley
said, "Looking back on that, I'm sure that it was the greatest mistake
in my life." He tried to take the blame for what happened: "I am
the cause of John's tragedy--I forced him out at a time when he simply
couldn't cope. I wish to God that I could trade places with him
Dr. John Hopper, wearing aviator
glasses and talking
in a weary tone, testified about his misdiagnosis of Hinckley.
was not merely an "unmotivated kid who needed behavioral therapy," as
first thought, but someone suffering from serious mental illness.
An autobiography written by John in November 1980 at Hopper's request
introduced into evidence. In it, Hinckley wrote of "a
I had dreamed about" that "went absolutely nowhere" and a mind that was
"on the breaking point." Hopper, relying on his face-to-face
of Hinckley, had failed to appreciate the seriousness of the warnings
in the autobiography. Hopper also testified that he knew nothing
of Hinckley's stalking of President Carter or his purchase of handguns.
As technicians set up television sets
locations in the courtroom, Judge Barrington Parker told the jury:
and gentleman, at this point in time you will see a video tape
of a deposition of the witness Jodie Foster." At the defense
John moved from his habitual slump to an upright position. Foster
described Hinckley's first sets of letters to her as "lover-type
The last batch of letters Foster called "distress-sounding" and she
"I gave them to the dean of my college." One letter, dated March 6,
said only: "Jodie Foster, love, just wait. I will rescue you very
soon. please cooperate. J.W.H." Asked whether she'd
seen a message like that before," Foster replied, "Yes, in the movie Taxi
Driver the character Travis Bickle sends the character Iris a
letter." Then came a series of questions that caused Hinckley to stand
and bolt through the courtroom door--pursued by federal marshals:
respect to the
individual John W. Hinckley, looking at him in the courtroom today, do
you recall seeing him in person before today?"
After Foster's videotaped testimony, the
case continued with the introduction of tapes of brief phone
with Jodie Foster found in Hinckley's Washington hotel room. The
tapes revealed a puzzled Foster trying to put a quick end to the call:
"I can't carry on these conversations with people I don't know."
"Did you ever respond
to his letters?"
"No, I did not."
"Did you ever invite
"How would you describe
with John Hinckley?"
"I don't have any
with John Hinckley."
The lead psychiatric expert for the
defense was Dr.
William Carpenter. One commentator described Carpenter as
Time" with his gray beard and shoulder length hair. From
hours of conversation with John Hinckley, Carpenter concluded the
suffered from schizophrenia. He saw Hinckley has having four
symptoms of mental illness: "an incapacity to have an ordinary
arousal," "autistic retreat from reality," depression including
features," and an inability to work or establish social bonds.
to Carpenter, Hinckley's lack of conviction about his identity led
him to snatch fragments of personality from book and movie
as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. As he played his guitar
in dormitory and hotel rooms, Hinckley had come to think of himself as
John Lennon--and thus was thrown into mental chaos by Lennon's sudden
The monologue Hinckley recorded on New Year's Eve showed the depth of
is dead. The
world is over. Forget it. It's just gonna be insanity, if I even make
through the first few days. . . . I still regret having to go on with
. . . I don't know why people wanna live . . . John Lennon is dead. . .
I still think-I still think about Jodie all the time. That's all I
about really. That, and John Lennon's death. They were sorta binded
When Jack Hinckley refused to let their
back home in 1981, John's last link to the real world was severed,
testified. At his low-rent hotel, Hinckley signed the guest
"J. Travis." with normal moorings lost, Hinckley followed the "dictates
from his inner world." He felt compelled to "rescue" Jodie
According to Carpenter, "He feels like he is on a roller coaster, and
escape." Carpenter saw in the shooting of Reagan thoughts of
"His state of mind during the time is depression, the need to terminate
all of this, to have his own death." He noted that Hinckley
Reagan's wave--he thought it was a wave just to him, when it was
intended for the crowd--, and said that seeing personalized messages in
ordinary events was a classic symptom of mental illness.
Carpenter ended three days of
testimony by concluding
that Hinckley could appreciate the wrongfulness of his act
but not emotionally. To him, the President and the others he shot
were just "bit players." So focused was he on achieving a
unification with Jodie Foster" that he didn't see the consequences of
action for his victims.
David Bear joined in Carpenter's diagnosis of psychosis. He
that Hinckley thought Travis Bickle was talking to him. He began
to feel "like he was acting out a movie script." It was highly
that Hinckley was faking illness, because those that do almost always
fake "positive" signs like hearing voices of having visions.
signs were all "negative," like showing no emotion and jumping in his
Hinckley's shooting of the President, according to Bear, was "the very
opposite of logic." Finally, Bear suggested that a CAT-scan of Hinckley
showing widened sulci in his brain was "powerful" evidence of his
about one-third of schizophrenics have widened sulci, but only about 2%
of the normal population.
Dr. Ernest Prelinger, a Yale
concerning testing he performed on Hinckley. With an I. Q. of
Hinckley could be classified as "bright normal." But on the
Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Hinckley was near the peak of
According to Prelinger, only one person out a million with Hinckley's
would not be suffering from serious mental illness.
A complete showing of the movie Taxi
closed the defense case.
The prosecution, in its psychiatric
attempted to shift the focus of the jury back to March 30, 1981.
The government's lead expert, Dr.
Park Dietz, put forward the diagnosis of the government's
team: Hinckley suffered from various personality disorders, but was not
psychotic or insane. Essentially, Hinckley was a bored, spoiled,
lazy, manipulative rich kid. The teams' report concluded:
is clearly indicative of a person who did not function in a usual
manner. However, there is no evidence that he was so impaired
he could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or conform his
conduct to the requirements of the law.
Dietz had a contradictory interpretation
every piece of a defense evidence. Hinckley's frequent flying
an ability to make complex travel arrangements more than it did an
obsession. His choice of Devestator bullets, his concealing of
handgun, and his timing of his assassination attempt showed
Hinckley imitated Travis Bickle much as would the fan of rock star--he
didn't "absorb" his identity as the defense contended. Hinckley
not have an "obsession" with Foster, but only the sort of infatuation a
young man might often have for a starlet. His bizarre writings
"fiction" that were "not that useful" in determining his mental state.
testified that Hinckley viewed his actions on March 30 as
"It worked," Hinckley told Dietz in an interview. "You know,
I accomplished everything I was going for there. Actually, I
feel good because I accomplished everything on a grand scale....I
get any big thrill out of killing--I mean shooting--him. I did it
for her sake....The movie isn't over yet."
After the testimony of another
Dr. Sally Johnson, who confirmed Dietz's basic findings, Adelman
"Your honor, the prosecution rests."
arguments contained moments of drama. Adelman, in the
summation, strode back and forth in front of the jury with the actual
used in the shootings as he shouted to the jurors, "This man shot down
in the street James Brady, a bullet in his brain!" Defense
Vince Fuller's recounting of Hinckley's "pathetic" life left John
at the defense table, his face in his hands, bent forward, and shaking.
Judge Barrington Parker ended eight
weeks of evidence
and arguments by reading his instructions
to the jury. Most importantly, Parker told the jurors that
prosecution had the burden of showing beyond a reasonable doubt that
was not insane: that on March 30, 1981 he could appreciate the
of his actions. Parker did not tell the jury should reach its
by focusing solely on Hinckley's intellectual awareness of the
of his action, as the prosecution suggested, or by some broader notion
that included emotional appreciation of wrongfulness.
For over three days the jury
fate. Finally, a verdict. Judge Parker asked the twenty-two
year-old jury foreman to unseal the envelope containing the verdict and
hand it to a clerk, who passed it to the judge. Parker read the
"As to Count 1, Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. As to Count 2,
Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity." The reading continued, the
verdict for each of the thirteen counts.
INSANITY DEFENSE REFORM IN THE TRIAL
Within a month of the Hinckley
verdict, the House
and Senate were holding hearings on the insanity defense. A
proposed by Senator Arlen Specter shifted the burden of proof of
to the defense. President Reagan expressed his support for the
with the comment, "If you start thinking about even a lot of your
you would have to say, 'Gee, if I had to prove they were sane, I would
have a hard job.' "
Joining Congress in shifting the
burden of proof
were a number of states. Within three years after the Hinckley
two-thirds of the states placed the burden on the defense to prove
while eight states adopted a separate verdict of "guilty but mentally
and one state (Utah) abolished the defense altogether.
In addition to shifting the burden in
cases, Congress also narrowed the defense itself. Legislation
in 1984 required the defendant to prove a "severe" mental disease and
the "volitional" or "control"aspect of the insanity defense.
1984, a federal defendant has had to prove that the "severe" mental
made him "unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the
of his acts."
HINCKLEY AT ST. ELIZABETHS
Following his acquittal, John Hinckley
Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington. He is entitled to his
once it is proved that he is no longer a threat, because of his mental
illness, to himself or others.
On December 17, 2003, a federal judge
Hinckley no longer posed a serious danger to himself or others and was
entitled to unsupervised visits with his parents. In 2007, a
request for unsupervised visits extending as long as one month was
denied. The judge based his denial not on any problems with prior
visits (there were none), but because the hospital had not taken "the
necessary steps" for such a "transition."