(Originally published by the WCL Criminal Law Brief Blog)
In January 2012, Judge Paul Friedman presided over hearings to determine whether to grant John Hinckley extended furloughs from St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital, where he has been committed for the past thirty years. Hinckley’s lawyers petitioned Judge Friedman to grant two seventeen-day furloughs, and then six furloughs of twenty-four days to his mother’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia, with convalescence leave upon the completion thereof. Federal prosecutors challenged the petition, arguing that Hinckley remains a threat to society and that his furlough privileges should not be expanded.
On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan and three others at the Washington Hilton in a failed assassination attempt. The United States indicted Hinckley on 13 counts, including attempted assassination of the President of the United States, attempted murder, multiple counts of assault, and various weapons charges. In 1982, John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and involuntarily committed to St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital.
Hinckley has suffered from severe schizophrenia and depression, and has long been obsessed with the delusion that he entertained an unrequited romantic communication with the actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley wrote a letter to her a few hours before leaving for the Hilton Hotel, “[b]y sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me . . . 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.”
Upon admittance to St. Elizabeth’s, John Hinckley underwent psychiatric evaluation and was classified as a danger to himself, Jodie Foster, and any third party whom he believed to stand in the way between himself and his ultimate aims. While confined as a patient, Hinckley has remained tormented by schizophrenia and severe bouts of depression. He attempted to commit suicide at least three times. A 1987 search of Hinckley’s room found writings that revealed that he remained obsessed with Jodie Foster, exchanged correspondence with the serial killer Ted Bundy, and attempted to reach out to the murderous cult leader Charles Manson.
After years of intensive therapy, the psychologists and psychiatrists of St. Elizabeth’s have maintained that Hinckley’s mental illness has been in remission. In 1999, a federal court allowed Hinckley to enjoy supervised furloughs to the house of his aging mother in Williamsburg, Virginia. According to the court order he is required to carry a GPS-equipped cell phone at all times. He has been allowed to visit restaurants, bookstores, and shopping malls without incident.
In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman considered a petition from Hinckley’s lawyers to extend his furlough privileges to periods of ten days at a time. Judge Friedman wrote in his ruling, “[t]he ultimate question is whether a preponderance of the evidence supports the proposition that Mr. Hinckley will not, in the reasonable future, be a danger to himself or others.” A forensic psychologist testified that “Hinckley has recovered to the point that he poses no imminent risk of danger to himself or others.” Judge Friedman agreed, and extended Hinckley’s furlough privileges to periods of ten days.
Whether Judge Friedman grants the defense counsel’s petition for extended furlough and convalescence leave will turn on whether the court determines that Hinckley, after 30 years of psychiatric treatment and counseling at St. Elizabeth’s, has been sufficiently rehabilitated.
Schizophrenia is a chronic condition which may remit and exacerbate periodically. Persons who suffer from schizophrenia can often mitigate their symptoms with therapy and anti-psychotic medications. However, if a patient suffering from schizophrenia were to be discharged from an institution, neglect to go to follow-up outpatient visits, and refuse to take his medication as prescribed, one could within days to weeks and most probably within a month remit into flagrant psychosis. In many cases, those who present with symptoms of paranoia often fear taking their prescribed medication, believing that it is poison. Many patients stop taking their medications because of the undesirable side-effects.
For more than 12 years, Hinckley’s psychologists and psychiatrists have maintained that his mental illness has remitted to the point that he is no longer an imminent danger to himself or the rest of society. However, there remains the thorny fact that John Hinckley shot the President – the most popular President of the modern era and a Republican icon.
The United States maintains that there should be no changes to the conditions of Hinckley’s involuntary confinement. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Chasson argued before the court at the 2011 hearings that Hinckley has acted deceptively and dishonestly with the St. Elizabeth’s staff during his conditional releases. According to Chasson, Hinckley told the staff that he was going to see a movie, but Secret Service agents observed Hinckley walk to the ticket counter but slip into the nearby Barnes & Nobles. According to the government’s account, Hinckley dwelled in the history aisles and stood fixated on books about Reagan and presidential assassinations.
The prosecutors also noted in their court filing, “Hinckley continues to be deceptive regarding his relationships with and interest in women. In June 2009, Hinckley searched the Internet for photographs of his female dentist. When he was caught, Hinckley claimed, falsely, that the dentist had invited him to view her personal photographs.”
Clearly, John Hinckley remains a troubled man, and one could construe Hinckley’s reported behavior to establish that his pathology remains unvanquished. Cyber-stalking one’s dentist might be deemed by the court of society to be categorically inappropriate. In the context of a man who has resorted to outrageous feats of violence to win the admiration of women, is it evidence of an unreformed aspiring assassin with the intent to kill again?
A parole officer should be concerned that a potential parolee said that he was going to the movies but went to the Barnes & Nobles instead. Telling a parole officer one thing but doing another, no matter how trivial, is a violation of the terms of a furlough. But is it not eminently reasonable for Hinckley to be interested in biographies of the man he tried to kill and scholarly accounts of his walk-on role in American history?
“The risk of danger is decidedly low,” maintains Barry Levine, counsel for Mr. Hinckley, “We must look at the legal standing between mental illness and danger.” Levine told Judge Friedman that “The evidence shows this man is not dangerous.”
However, U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, who prosecuted the case in 1982, opines, “I think John Hinckley will be a threat the rest of his life. He is a time bomb.”
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