A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has granted unconditional release to would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr., who in 1981 shot then-president Ronald Reagan and three others.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman approved Hinckley's unconditional release during a Wednesday morning hearing and wished the gunman well, according to reporters on hand for the proceedings. Though the threat to the then-president's life was downplayed at the time, the shooting nearly killed Reagan and left two others with permanent injuries.
Wednesday's release order captures the sharp pro-defendant turn of many courts at a time of skyrocketing violent crime. Friedman and lawyers for both sides said Wednesday that Hinckley's case was a model for mental health alternatives in criminal justice. Such approaches are championed by liberals who say social programs and counseling are a better treatment for crime than prison.
The would-be assassin commands an impressive pro-bono legal team comprised of attorneys from four different law firms, including heavy hitters Blank Rome LLP and Cozen O'Connor. Friedman, a Clinton appointee, in 1987 left a lucrative perch in private practice to join the independent counsel conducting the Iran-Contra investigation. The seven-year, $40 million probe failed to obtain a single lasting conviction
Justice Department prosecutors at Wednesday morning's hearing did not oppose Hinckley's release. Hinckley has been in the care of St. Elizabeth's psychiatric hospital since a jury in 1982 found him not guilty by reason of insanity.
Hinckley has been on convalescent leave from St. Elizabeth's and living in Williamsburg, Va., since 2016. He resided with his mother until her death in September. A psychologist retained by prosecutors warned that his mother's death could be a destabilizing event for Hinckley and noted that the gunman has not lived alone in the 40 years since he shot Reagan.
Authorities at the Department of Behavioral Health took a different view and recommended Hinckley's unconditional release. The department has for years on a regular basis produced reports on Hinckley's mental state and compliance with release conditions.
"Those reports have consistently indicated that Mr. Hinckley has been compliant with all the conditions of his release and has remained mentally stable and asymptomatic for mental disease," Friedman wrote in a September order.
Reagan nearly died of the injuries he sustained in the attack. Three others were wounded—White House press secretary James Brady was paralyzed and used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty retired from the force due to lasting nerve damage. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, who put himself in the line of fire to protect the president, was shot in the stomach but survived the deadly encounter.
The release is effective as of June 15.