In 2000 I wrote a piece for Time magazine about John Hinckley’s first attempt to get unsupervised visits into Williamsburg, Virginia. He was already allowed supervised day trips off the grounds of Saint Elizabeths Hospital. It was a lengthy article for which I interviewed Hinckley’s attorney, Barry Levine, as well as a federal prosecutor and a Secret Service agent who would only speak on background. The piece got a lot of media attention, prompting Barry Levine to withdraw his request for the unsupervised visits. But I knew he was only biding his time. He would wait until people forgot and then try again.
That’s exactly what he did, and he succeeded. Over the years, Hinckley’s freedom was increased incrementally so that by 2011 when I again wrote a piece for Time on the 30th anniversary of the shooting, John Hinckley was visiting his mother in Williamsburg for 10 day stays 12 times a year. He was required to be accompanied by either his (then) 85 year old mother or a sibling whenever he went out and to carry a GPS-enabled cell phone.
Now, what Barry Levine has been working toward all these years has happened: his client, who shot four people including the President of the United States will get his freedom. He will have to check in sometimes with his doctors, and he will have to live with his 90 year old mother, which shouldn’t cramp his style too much given her age and infirmities. His doctors have said that his psychosis and depression have been in remission for decades and his narcissistic personality disorder has lessened…quite a feat since narcissistic personality disorder is considered incurable.
In 2000, when I interviewed Barry Levine, I found him to be loquacious to a fault. He expounded upon Hinckley’s remorse, the hard work he’d done at Saint Elizabeths, his miraculous recovery from an incurable psychological disorder. He said Hinckley “regrets this event more than anything. He is haunted by what he did — more so than when he was sick and didn’t fully understand what he had done. Now he understands the stark horror of his actions.” He also wanted me to meet with Hinckley and offer him forgiveness. I didn’t put this exchange in my article but Mr. Levine said to me, “The Pope forgave the man who shot him.” I replied, “That’s why he’s the Pope and I’m not.”
For purposes of review, here are a few other things Hinckley was doing at Saint Elizabeths: Writing to mass murderers Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. Federal prosecutors reported this to the hospital doctors who didn’t know because they hadn’t wanted to invade Hinckley’s privacy by searching his room. He’s had several girlfriends, most notably Leslie deVeau who killed her 10 year old daughter with a 12 gauge semiautomatic shotgun while the girl slept, then tried to kill herself but only managed to shoot off her left arm.
On that chilly March day in 1981, John Hinckley was patient. At 1:45, he waved as my father stepped out of the limousine and walked into the hotel to deliver a speech. Then he waited. He had a girl in mind he wanted to impress. Surely Jody Foster would notice him if he assassinated the President. At 2:25 when my father walked back outside, Hinckley yelled, “President Reagan! President Reagan!” Then he crouched like a marksman and fired six shots. Four lives were changed in a matter of minutes.
He ended up with attorney who is also patient, who has been willing to take his time and move slowly to get what he wants: freedom for John Hinckley. In 1982 when the verdict came down — not guilty by reason of insanity — the nation was shocked. Dan Rather said on his nightly broadcast, “If John Hinckley has the will (and he’s shown he is willful) and the way (and his family is rich), he will probably down the road ask to be released from Saint Elizabeths on the grounds that he is no longer dangerous. And sooner or later, a panel of experts may nod and say yes.” I remember getting chilled when I heard Mr. Rather’s commentary all those years ago. Something in me knew he was right even though everything in me hoped he was wrong. I’m not surprised by this latest development, but my heart is sickened.
When my father was lying in a hospital bed recovering from the gunshots that nearly killed him, he said, “I know my ability to heal depends on my willingness to forgive John Hinckley.” I too believe in forgiveness. But forgiving someone in your heart doesn’t mean that you let them loose in Virginia to pursue whatever dark agendas they may still hold dear.
I will forever be haunted by a drizzly March afternoon when my father almost died, when Jim Brady lay in a pool of blood and two other men — Thomas Delahanty and Timothy McCarthy — were gravely wounded. If John Hinckley is haunted by anything, I think it’s that he didn’t succeed in his mission to assassinate the President.