The verdict of "not guilty" for reason of insanity in the 1982 trial of John Hinckley, Jr. for his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan stunned and outraged many Americans. An ABC News poll taken the day after the verdict showed 83% of those polled thought "justice was not done" in the Hinckley case. Some people--without much evidence--attributed the verdict to an anti-Reagan bias on the part the Washington, D. C. jury of eleven blacks and one white. Many more people, however, blamed a legal system that they claimed made it too easy for juries to return "not guilty" verdicts in insanity cases--despite the fact that such pleas were made in only 2% of felony cases and failed over 75% of the time. Public pressure resulting from the Hinckley verdict spurred Congress and most states into enacting major reforms of laws governing the use of the insanity defense.
The Hinckley trial highlights the difficulty of a system that forces jurors to label a defendant either "sane" or "insane" when the defendant may in fact be close to the middle on a spectrum ranging from Star Trek's Mr. Spock to the person who strangles his wife thinking that he's squeezing a grapefruit. Any objective evaluation of John Hinckley's mental condition shows him to be a troubled young man--not, as one prosecution witness described him, "a normal, All-American boy." But how troubled? The prosecution contended that Hinckley suffered only from "personality disorders" of the type affecting five to ten percent of the population, whereas the defense saw the same evidence as demonstrating Hinckley's serious mental illness.
The Hinckley trial, perhaps better than any other famous trial, reveals the difficulty of ascertaining what exactly is going on in the head of another human being--and then in using that imperfect knowledge to answer a legal question that reduces complex and changing mental states to two oversimplified categories.This is actually a really neat site on famous trials and just generally interesting (I use it in several of my classes).
There is their biography of Hinckley:
John Warnock Hinckley, Jr., was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, on May 29, 1955. The youngest of three children, John’s home life seemed picture perfect. His father, John W. Hinckley, Sr., was a successful and wealthy Chairman and President of the Vanderbilt Energy Corporation while JoAnn Moore Hinckley, John’s mother, was a homemaker who doted on her children, especially John, whom she felt was more introverted than his older siblings. John’s brother, Scott Hinckley, graduated from Vanderbilt University and became Vice-President of his father’s oil and gas business. John’s older sister, Diane, was popular and outgoing, a straight "A" student in high school and a graduate of SMU in Dallas.
In the early years of John’s life, it seemed as though John would follow the path to popularity and success that his elder siblings had established. When John was four years old, the Hinckley family moved to Dallas, Texas. During his elementary school years, John was the quarterback of the school football team and also played basketball, earning the title "best basketball player" for his elementary school basketball team. When John was in the sixth grade, his family moved to the exclusive suburb of Highland Park. During junior high, John was elected President of his seventh grade and ninth grade classes, managed his school’s football team, and took up the guitar.
During high school, John became increasing reclusive. He rarely brought friends home and would spend hours alone in his room, strumming his guitar and listening to the Beatles. Although his parents attributed his lack of social interaction to shyness, his increasing withdrawal from society is evident from a classmate’s description of him as "a non-guy" in high school.
In 1973, after graduating from high school, John and his family moved to Evergreen, Colorado, the new headquarters for his father’s business. In the fall of that same year, John enrolled at Texas Tech, in Lubbock. After finishing his freshman year, John moved to Dallas to live with his sister, Diane, and her husband and son. In 1975, John returned to Texas Tech during the spring semester. A year later, in April of 1976, John dropped out of college and flew to California to pursue his dream of becoming a songwriter. Living in an apartment in Hollywood, John saw the movie "Taxi Driver" fifteen times that summer, writing his parents about a make-believe girlfriend
named Lynn Collins modeled on one of the movie’s main characters. Many believe that Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan was based on this movie, the story of an American psychopath who stalks a political candidate. Frustrated with what he termed the "phony, impersonal Hollywood scene," John left California in September of 1976 and returned to Evergreen, where he worked as a busboy at a dinner club for a few months.
In the spring of 1977, Hinckley went back to California, but again found it unsatisfying and returned to Texas Tech, remaining there through the summer of 1978. When John returned to the university, he switched his major from Business Administration to English. During the seven years that John attended college, he dropped in and out of classes without ever acquiring a college degree. John also formed no meaningful relationships while at Texas Tech; fellow classmates stated that they rarely saw John in the company of other people.
In August of 1979, John bought his first gun, a thirty-eight caliber pistol, and began target-shooting. A self-taken photograph of John in December of 1979 portrays him holding a gun to his temple. According to defense experts, Hinckley played Russian Roulette twice in November and December of 1979.
In 1980, John continued to add to his gun collection, purchasing the exploding-head Devastators that he eventually used in his assassination attempt. In that same year, John experienced various health ailments, and began receiving prescriptions for anti-depressants and tranquilizers.
In response to an article in a May 1980 issue of People regarding Jodie Foster’s enrollment at Yale University, Hinckley enrolled in a Yale writing course so that he could be near the young actress who had made such a deep impression on him in "Taxi Driver." At Yale, he attempted to establish contact with Jodie, and left letters and poems in her mailbox. He managed to have two telephone conversations with her, during which he assured her that he was not a "dangerous person." His deep obsession with Foster, however, coincided with his obsession with assassination. Hinckley believed that achieving notoriety by assassinating the President of the United States would help him gain what he termed her "respect and love."
In the fall of 1980, Hinckley decided to stalk President Carter. On October 2nd of that year, Hinckley went to one of Carter’s campaign appearances, but left his gun collection, now totaling three handguns and two rifles, in his hotel room. When Hinckley went to Nashville during another of Carter’s campaign stops, he was arrested at the airport when airport security detected handguns in his suitcases. The guns were confiscated and Hinckley was fined $62.50 and sent on his way. Soon after this incident, Hinckley bought two more twenty-two caliber handguns while
visiting his sister.
At his parents’ insistence, Hinckley began seeing a psychiatrist in Colorado. The psychiatrist thought that John’s problems stemmed from emotional immaturity, and recommended to John’s parents that John be cut off financially and forced to make it on his own.
After failing to get a job at the end of February of 1981 as he’d promised his parents, John flew to Hollywood. Staying there only one day, John Hinckley Jr. boarded a bus and checked into the Park Central Hotel in Washington D.C. on March 29, 1981. The next day, Monday March 30th, John wrote a letter to Jodie Foster describing his plan to assassinate President Reagan, to impress her with his "historical deed," left his hotel room and took a cab to the Washington Hilton where Reagan was to speak to a labor convention at 1:45 p.m.
At 1:30 p.m., John Hinckley Jr. stepped forward from a crowd of television reporters and fired six shots from a Rohm R6-14 revolver. The bullets from Hinckley’s gun struck Ronald Reagan in the left chest, Press Secretary James Brady in the left temple, Officer Thomas Delahanty in the neck, and Security Agent Timothy J. McCarthy in the stomach. Hinckley was immediately arrested, and his trial began over a year later, on May 4, 1982. On June 21, 1982, after seven weeks of testimony and three days of deliberation by the jury, John Hinckley Jr. was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He currently resides at St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C.