John Hinckley Jr.
This biography of a living person needs additional citations for verification. (June 2021)
John Hinckley Jr.
John Warnock Hinckley Jr.
May 29, 1955
Ardmore, Oklahoma, U.S.
|Criminal status||Granted unconditional release on June 15, 2022|
|Verdict||Not guilty on all counts by reason of insanity|
Span of crimes
|Late 1970s – 1981|
|March 30, 1981|
|Total views||1.22 million|
Last updated: December 10, 2022
John Warnock Hinckley Jr. (born May 29, 1955) is an American man who attempted to assassinate U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C. on March 30, 1981, two months after Reagan's first inauguration. Using a .22 caliber revolver, Hinckley wounded Reagan; police officer Thomas Delahanty; Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy; and White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was left permanently disabled. Hinckley was reportedly seeking fame to impress actress Jodie Foster, with whom he had a fixation. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and remained under institutional psychiatric care for over three decades. Public outcry over the verdict led state legislatures and Congress to narrow their respective insanity defenses.
In 2016, a federal judge ruled that Hinckley could be released from psychiatric care as he was no longer considered a threat to himself or others, albeit with many conditions. After 2020, a ruling was issued that Hinckley may showcase his artwork, writings, and music publicly under his own name, rather than anonymously as he had in the past. Since then, he has maintained a YouTube channel for his music. His restrictions were unconditionally lifted in June 2022.
John Warnock Hinckley Jr. was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and moved with his wealthy family to Dallas, Texas at the age of four. His father was John Warnock Hinckley (June 6, 1925 – January 29, 2008), founder, chairman, chief executive and president of the Vanderbilt Energy Corporation. His mother was Jo Ann Hinckley (née Moore; December 7, 1925 – July 30, 2021).
Hinckley grew up in University Park, Texas, and attended Highland Park High School in Dallas County. After Hinckley graduated from high school in 1974, his family, owners of the Hinckley oil company, moved to Evergreen, Colorado, where the new company headquarters was located. He was an off-and-on student at Texas Tech University from 1974 to 1980 but eventually dropped out. In 1975, he went to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming a songwriter. His efforts were unsuccessful, and he wrote to his parents with tales of misfortune and pleas for money. He also spoke of a girlfriend, Lynn Collins, who turned out to be a fabrication. In September 1976, he returned to his parents' home in Evergreen.: 4 In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hinckley began purchasing weapons and practicing with them. He was prescribed antidepressants and tranquilizers to deal with his emotional problems.
Obsession with Jodie Foster
Hinckley became obsessed with the 1976 film Taxi Driver, in which disturbed protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) plots to assassinate a presidential candidate. Bickle was partly based on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who attempted to assassinate George Wallace. Hinckley developed an infatuation with Jodie Foster, who played Iris Steensma, a sexually trafficked 12-year-old child, in the film. When Foster entered Yale University, Hinckley moved to New Haven, Connecticut, for a short time to stalk her. He sent Foster love letters and romantic poems, and repeatedly called and left her messages.
Failing to develop any meaningful contact with Foster, Hinckley fantasized about conducting an aircraft hijacking or killing himself in front of her to get her attention. Eventually, he settled on a scheme to impress her by assassinating the president, thinking that by achieving a place in history, he would appeal to her as an equal. Hinckley trailed President Jimmy Carter from state to state, and was arrested in Nashville, Tennessee, on a firearms charge. Penniless, he returned home. Despite psychiatric treatment for depression, his mental health did not improve. He began to target the newly elected president Ronald Reagan in 1981. For this purpose, he collected material on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Hinckley wrote to Foster just before his attempt on Reagan's life:
Over the past seven months I've left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint hope that you could develop an interest in me. Although we talked on the phone a couple of times I never had the nerve to simply approach you and introduce myself. ... The reason I'm going ahead with this attempt now is because I cannot wait any longer to impress you.— John Hinckley Jr.
Ronald Reagan assassination attempt
On March 30, 1981, at 2:27 p.m. EST, Hinckley shot a .22 caliber Röhm RG-14 revolver six times at Reagan as he left the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., after the president addressed an AFL–CIO conference.
Hinckley wounded police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and critically wounded press secretary James Brady. Though Hinckley did not hit Reagan directly, the president was seriously wounded when a bullet ricocheted off the side of the presidential limousine and hit him in the chest. Alfred Antenucci, a Cleveland, Ohio labor official who stood near Hinckley and saw him firing, hit Hinckley in the head and pulled him to the ground. Within two seconds agent Dennis McCarthy (no relation to agent Timothy McCarthy) dove onto Hinckley, intent on protecting Hinckley and to avoid what happened to Lee Harvey Oswald, who was killed before he could be tried for the assassination of President Kennedy.: 84 Another Cleveland-area labor official, Frank J. McNamara, joined Antenucci and started punching Hinckley in the head, striking him so hard he drew blood. Brady had been shot by Hinckley in the right side of the head, and endured a long recuperation period, remaining paralyzed on the left side of his body until his death on August 4, 2014. Brady's death was ruled a homicide 33 years after the shooting.
At trial, the government emphasized Hinckley's premeditation of the shooting: noting that he had purchased a gun, trailed President Carter, traveled to Washington, D.C., left a note detailing his plan, selected particularly devastating ammunition, and fired six shots. The defense, on the other hand, argued that Hinckley's actions and his obsession with Foster indicated that he was legally insane.: 1548 The trial was chiefly devoted to a battle of the psychiatric experts concerning Hinckley's mental state.: 1549 Because Hinckley was charged in federal court, the prosecution was required to prove his sanity beyond reasonable doubt. While detained, Hinckley attempted suicide twice.
For the defense, Dr. William T. Carpenter, who diagnosed Hinckley with schizophrenia, testified for three days, opining that Hinckley had amalgamated various personalities from fiction and real life—including Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and John Lennon. Carpenter concluded that Hinckley could not emotionally appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions because he was consumed by the prospect of a "magical unification with Jodie Foster". Dr. David Bear testified that Hinckley's actions followed the "the very opposite of logic" and that Hinckley did not exhibit signs of malingering. Bear said that his opinion was in part supported by a CAT scan of Hinckley's brain showing widened sulci, a feature Bear said was found in 1⁄3 of persons with schizophrenia but only 2 percent of non-schizophrenics.: 1549 And Dr. Ernest Prelinger testified that, while Hinckley had an above-average IQ, his results on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory were highly abnormal—specifically, Prelinger said that only one person out of a million with Hinckley's score would not be suffering from serious mental illness.
For the prosecution, Dr. Park Dietz testified that he had diagnosed Hinckley with dysthymia and three types of personality disorders: narcissistic; schizoid; and mixed, with borderline, and passive-aggressive features.: 9 Dietz found that none of these illnesses rendered Hinckley legally insane;: 9 his report said that there was "no evidence that [Hinckley] was so impaired that he could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or conform his conduct to the requirements of the law". Dr. Sally Johnson, a psychiatrist in the federal prison who interviewed Hinckley more than any other doctor, emphasized that Hinckley had planned the shooting: 601 and that he was preoccupied with being famous. Johnson said that Hinckley's interest in Foster was no different than any young man's interest in a movie star.
The insanity instruction provided to the Hinckley jurors were based on the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code:
The burden is on the Government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt either that the defendant was not suffering from a mental disease or defect on March 30, 1981, or else that he nevertheless had substantial capacity on that date both to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law and to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct.— Jury instructions.: 1549 n.7
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21, 1982.
Soon after his trial, Hinckley wrote that the shooting was "the greatest love offering in the history of the world" and was disappointed that Foster did not reciprocate his love. In 1985, Hinckley's parents wrote Breaking Points, a book detailing their son's mental condition.
On August 4, 2014, James Brady died; because the medical examiner determined his death to be a result of the "gunshot wound and consequences thereof", it was labelled a homicide. Hinckley did not face charges as a result of Brady's death because he had been found not guilty of the original crime by reason of insanity. In addition, since Brady's death occurred more than 33 years after the shooting, prosecution of Hinckley was barred under the year and a day law in effect in the District of Columbia at the time of the shooting.
Effect on insanity defenses
Before the Hinckley case, the insanity defense had been used in less than 2% of all American felony cases and was unsuccessful in almost 75% of those trials. Created in 1962, the Model Penal Code's insanity test broadened the then-dominate M'Naghten test; by 1981, it was adopted in ten of the eleven federal circuits and a majority of the states.: 10 & n.40 But, as a consequence of public outcry over the Hinckley verdict, the United States Congress and a number of states enacted legislation making the insanity defense more restrictive: Congress rejected the MPC test,: 1484 & n.49 and, by 2006, only 14 states retained it. Eighty percent of insanity-defense reforms between 1978 and 1990 occurred shortly after the Hinckley verdict.: 1487 n.76 In addition to restricting eligibility for the defense, many of these reforms also shifted the burden of proof to the defendant.
For the first time, Congress passed a law stipulating the insanity test to be used in all federal criminal trials, the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984. The IDRA excised the Model Penal Code's volitional element in favor of an exclusively cognitive test,: 1484–85 affording the insanity defense to a defendant who can show that, "at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts".: 945 n.76 At the state level, Idaho, Montana, and Utah abolished the defense altogether.
Hinckley's acquittal led to the popularization of the "guilty but mentally ill" (GBMI) verdict, typically used when a defendant's mental illness did not result in sufficient impairment to warrant insanity. A defendant receiving a GMBI verdict generally receives an identical sentence to a defendant receiving a guilty verdict, but the designation allows for a medical evaluation and treatment.: 1485 Studies have suggested that jurors often favor a GBMI verdict, considering it to be a compromise.
Changes in federal and some state rules of evidence laws have since excluded or restricted the use of testimony of an expert witness, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, regarding conclusions on "ultimate" issues in insanity defense cases, including whether a criminal defendant is legally "insane", but this is not the rule in most states.
Hinckley was confined at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. After Hinckley was admitted, tests found that he was an "unpredictably dangerous" man who might harm himself or any third party. In 1983, he told Penthouse that on a normal day he would "see a therapist, answer mail, play guitar, listen to music, play pool, watch television, eat lousy food and take delicious medication".: 12
Around 1986, Hinckley and the hospital began seeking various conditional releases, which required judicial authorization.: 127–33 The Reagan family frequently spoke out against these requests. In 1986, a judge denied Hinckley's request to be transferred to a less restrictive ward. In 1987, the hospital requested that Hinckley be given a 12-hour unescorted pass allowing Hinckley to visit his parents on Easter. Dr. Glenn Miller, who had performed the initial evaluation of Hinckley, testified, "I do not believe he's suicidal, I do not believe he's a danger to Jodie Foster, I do not believe he's a danger to Mr. Reagan or Mr. Brady." But Miller also revealed that Hinckley had written to serial killer Ted Bundy, sought the address of Charles Manson, and received a letter from Manson family member Lynette Fromm. The hospital subsequently withdrew the request for "administrative" reasons, though it emphasized that the "clinical" assessment was unchanged. In 1992, Hinckley again submitted a request for additional privileges, but he later withdrew that request.: , 558 & n.1 During this period, St. Elizabeth's gradually expanded Hinckley's privileges by allowing off-site trips under custodial supervision.: 128–29
In 2003, Hinckley, for the first time, received judicial approval for a release proposal: six local day visits under the supervision of his parents and, upon the successful completion and evaluation of those day visits, two local overnight visits also under parental supervision. On June 17, 2009, Judge Friedman ruled that Hinckley would be permitted to visit his mother for a dozen visits of 10 days at a time, rather than six, to spend more time outside of the hospital, and to have a driver's license. The court also ordered that Hinckley be required to carry a GPS-enabled cell phone to track him whenever he was outside of his parents' home. He was prohibited from speaking with the news media. Prosecutors objected to this ruling, saying that Hinckley was still a danger to others and had unhealthy and inappropriate thoughts about women. Hinckley had recorded a song, "Ballad of an Outlaw", which the prosecutors claimed was "reflecting suicide and lawlessness".
On March 29, 2011, the day before the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt, Hinckley's attorney filed a court petition requesting more freedom for his client, including additional unsupervised visits to the Virginia home of Hinckley's mother, Joanne. On November 30, 2011, a hearing in Washington was held to consider whether he could live full-time outside the hospital. The Justice Department opposed this, stating that Hinckley still poses a danger to the public. Justice Department counsel argued that Hinckley had been known to deceive his doctors in the past. By December 2013, the court ordered that visits be extended to his mother, who lives near Williamsburg. Hinckley was permitted up to eight 17-day visits, with evaluation after the completion of each one.
On July 27, 2016, a federal judge ruled that Hinckley could be released from St. Elizabeths on August 5, as he was no longer considered a threat to himself or others. Patti Davis, one of Reagan's daughters, and then-Presidential Candidate Donald Trump both denounced Hinckley's release.
Hinckley was released from institutional psychiatric care on September 10, 2016, with many conditions—including that he was required to live full-time at his mother's home in Williamsburg, Virginia, to work at least 3 days a week and record his browser history. He was also prohibited from a variety of activities, including contacting the Reagan, Brady, or Foster families; watching or listening to violent media; accessing pornography; and speaking to the press. In November 2018, Judge Friedman ruled Hinckley could move out of his mother's house in Virginia and live on his own upon location approval from his doctors.
In September 2019, Hinckley's attorney stated that he had planned to ask for full, unconditional release from the court orders that determined how he could live by the end of that year. Just over two years later, on September 27, 2021, a federal judge approved Hinckley for unconditional release beginning June 2022. Michael Reagan, Reagan's son, spoke out in favor of the decision, while Davis again denounced it. On June 15, 2022, Hinckley was fully released from court restrictions.
Depiction in media
This section gives self-sourcing popular culture examples without describing their significance in the context of the article. (May 2023)
Phoenix, Arizona hardcore punk band Jodie Foster's Army (JFA) formed in 1981 and their name was a reference to the assassination attempt. Their eponymous song referred to Hinckley. Ohio new wave band Devo recorded a song "I Desire" for their fifth studio album, Oh, No! It's Devo (1982), which brought the band controversy because the lyrics were taken directly from a poem written by Hinckley. Hinckley has claimed that he has not received royalties for the use of his poem by them. In 1984 Lansing, Michigan hardcore band the Crucifucks recorded "Hinkley Had a Vision" [sic] which expressed a desire to kill the president. Another new wave band, Wall of Voodoo, released a song about Hinckley and his life titled "Far Side of Crazy" (1985), with the name also being a quotation from his poetry. Singer-songwriter Carmaig de Forest devoted a verse of his song "Hey Judas" to Hinckley, blaming him for Reagan's increased popularity following the assassination attempt.
Hinckley is featured as a character of the Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman musical Assassins (1990), in which he and Lynette Fromme sing "Unworthy Of Your Love", a duet about their respective obsessions with Foster and Charles Manson. Hinckley's life leading up to the assassination attempt is fictionalized in the 2015 novel Calf by Andrea Kleine. The novel also includes a fictionalization of Hinckley's former girlfriend, Leslie deVeau, whom he met at St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Hinckley is portrayed by Steven Flynn in the American television film, Without Warning: The James Brady Story (1991). Hinckley appears as a character in the television film The Day Reagan Was Shot (2001), portrayed by Christian Lloyd. He was portrayed by Kevin Woodhouse in the television film The Reagans (2003). Hinckley is portrayed by Kyle S. More in the movie Killing Reagan, released in 2016. In the TV series Timeless (2018), he is portrayed by Erik Stocklin.
Sketch comedy show The Whitest Kids U' Know made a skit that fictionalized the attempted assassination while also satirizing the presidency of Ronald Reagan
Transgressive punk rock singer GG Allin was arrested by the US Secret Service in Illinois in September 1989 after he corresponded with Hinckley and they discovered he had an outstanding arrest warrant for assault in Michigan.
Songwriting and performance
As a young adult, Hinckley made unsuccessful efforts to become a songwriter; years later he posted music online anonymously but received little interest. In October 2020, a federal court ruled that Hinckley may showcase and market his artwork, writings, and music publicly under his own name, but his treatment team could rescind the display privilege. Hinckley created a YouTube channel where, since December 2020, he has posted videos of himself performing original songs with a guitar and covers of songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan and the Elvis Presley song "Can't Help Falling in Love". His subscribers totaled over 30,900 by November 2022.
On June 6, 2021, Hinckley stated in a YouTube video that he was working on an album and looking for a record label to release it. Hinckley later announced in December 2021 that the album would be released in early 2022 on Emporia Records, a label he founded to "[release] the music of others, music that needs to be heard".
On October 7, 2021, Hinckley self-published his first single called "We Have Got That Chemistry" onto streaming platforms.
On November 10, 2021, Hinckley self-published another single called "You Let Whiskey Do Your Talking" onto multiple streaming platforms. Hinckley has also continued to release other original songs on his YouTube channel.
In January 2022, Hinckley announced that he was looking for members for his own band.
On June 15, 2022, it was announced that what would have been Hinckley's first live performance in front of a physically present audience at a Brooklyn, New York venue had been canceled over security concerns for "vulnerable communities" after it had received threats. Three other planned concerts that summer, in Chicago; Hamden, Connecticut; and Williamsburg, Virginia were also cancelled because of threats to the venues. Asbestos Records announced that they planned to release some of Hinckley's songs on vinyl in the fall of 2022. As of 2023, the album remains unreleased.
- United States federal laws governing defendants with mental diseases or defects
- Samuel Byck (attempted Nixon 1974)
- Lynette Fromme (attempted Ford 1975)
- Sara Jane Moore (attempted Ford 1975)
- Vladimir Arutyunian (attempted G. W. Bush 2005)
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The eldest Hinckley child, Scott, 30, is the vice president of the his [sic] father's company and a friend of Neil Bush, the son of Vice President Bush. Scott Hinckley and a date had been invited to dinner at the young Bushes' home last night, but the dinner was canceled after the shooting.
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