Mr. Hinckley's visits

December 19, 2003

A TERRIBLE THING happened on March 30, 1981, outside a Washington hotel. A young man walked up to President Ronald Reagan and shot him and three others. The assailant was mentally ill. He had a delusion that his actions might impress a famous actress. A jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman has ruled that John W. Hinckley Jr. is now well enough to be allowed to make six day-trips to see his parents without being accompanied by medical personnel. If he does well, he'll be granted two additional overnight visits.

This does not represent a release from St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he has been a patient for more than two decades. Over the last four years, he's been allowed on hundreds of outings to local malls, restaurants, bowling alleys and elsewhere, but always accompanied. Now, it's possible for him to see his parents without a hospital chaperone. That's all that has changed.

Even giving this modest opportunity to the 48-year-old Mr. Hinckley required weeks of legal wrangling and a 50-page opinion from Judge Friedman. It drew protests from the victims' families and Reagan supporters, and required hundreds of pages of legal arguments and expert testimony from a half-dozen witnesses. Yet, at its heart, this was a medical decision. Only one question needed to be answered: Would letting Mr. Hinckley go on an unchaperoned trip represent a danger? Judge Friedman says the evidence "weighs heavily" that it would not.

Relatively few people are ever found not guilty by reason of insanity. Just being sick or delusional is not enough. A defendant must prove that because of a mental impairment, he was unable to control his actions or appreciate their wrongfulness. A Virginia jury decided sniper Lee Boyd Malvo didn't meet the standard, convicting him on all counts yesterday afternoon, despite his lawyers' claim that he'd been brainwashed. On June 21, 1982, a different jury found Mr. Hinckley fit the criteria.

Doctors at St. Elizabeths believe Mr. Hinckley has gotten better since then. They asked the court to allow him these visits with his parents. At some point, if he is judged well enough by his psychiatrists, he will deserve to be released.

Has Mr. Hinckley been treated fairly? There are many societies where an assassination attempt would mean a quick execution. But we are a more compassionate people. We recognize that severe mental illness is different. And we also realize that sick people can get better. Should Mr. Hinckley be held to a higher standard because he shot a president? The law says no. Not guilty means not guilty. It would be wrong for the government to attempt to punish Mr. Hinckley by holding him longer than is needed to ensure public safety.

It is said that the greatness of a nation should be measured by how it treats its least powerful people. Surely, Mr. Hinckley is our yardstick for compassion.

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