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John Hinckley Jr. Gets Freedom 41 Years After Attempted Reagan Assassination

Left Photo Credit: Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images. Right Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).
Left Photo Credit: Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images. Right Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).

A federal judge has ruled that the man who attempted to assassinate former U.S. President Ronald Reagan will be set free on June 15, 2022.

Assassination attempt

Ronald Reagan waves to crowds outside the Hilton Hotel before the assassination attempt
President Ronald Reagan leaving the Hilton Hotel moments before John Hinckley Jr. opened fire in an attempt to assassinate the President. (Photo Credit: Michael Evans, National Archives and Records Administration via. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).

On March 30, 1981, Hinckley aimed a .22 caliber Röhm RG-14 at Ronald Reagan and shot six bullets as the president was leaving the Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C. While Hinckley didn’t hit the president directly, Reagan was wounded when a bullet ricocheted off a nearby limousine and hit him in the chest.

Ronald Reagan looks at a large photograph that reads "Get Well Soon, Mr. President"
President Ronald Reagan views a giant get-well card while recuperating from a gunshot wound suffered in the assassination attempt. (Photo Credit: Corbis via Getty Images).

Hinckley also shot and wounded police officer Thomas Delahanty, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and press secretary James Brady. Brady had been shot in the right side of the head, and though he survived the injury he remained fully paralyzed on the left side of his body until his death in 2014. Seconds after the shots were fired, Hinckley was tackled to the ground and beaten by three nearby officials.

But what drove Hinckley to attempt to kill Reagan that day? The answer is what many least expected.

Hollywood obsession led to attempt to “impress”

Chaos as a crowd of people look in horror following the Reagan assassination attempt
View of police officers and Secret Service agents as they dive to protect President Ronald Reagan amid a panicked crowd during the assassination attempt. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Six years before the shooting, Hinckley became obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver, starring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster. The film follows a disturbed man who plots to assassinate the president and is loosely based on the diary of Arthur Bremer who attempted to assassinate presidential candidate George Wallace.

Hinckley became infatuated with actress Jodie Foster and tried everything he could to connect with her. He moved to New Haven, Connecticut while Foster was attending Yale University and began stalking the young actress. Hinckley left notes, love poems, and countless messages on her answering machine but all of them failed to catch Foster’s attention.

A letter to Jodie Foster from John Hinckley reads: "Goodbye! I love you six trillion times. Don't you maybe like me just a little bit? (You must admit I am different). It would make all of this worthwhile.".
A note written to actress Jodie Foster on March 6, 1981, just over three weeks before President Reagan was shot. (Photo Credit: Bettmann via. Getty Images).

According to Hinckley, he began to fantasize about committing suicide or conducting a hijacking to get Foster’s attention, but eventually settled on a Taxi Driver scheme: assassinate President Ronald Reagan and win over Foster by becoming a famous historical figure.

Right before the assassination, Hinckley wrote Jodie Foster a letter confessing his plan:

“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.”

Pleading insanity

Hinckley in the back seat of a car
John Hinckley, Jr. in the back of this motioned vehicle outside the federal court in D. C. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images).

Clearly mentally unstable, Hinckley was held in a psychiatric prison while he awaited trial. On June 21, 1982, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The verdict was controversial at the time, eventually leading to major legislative changes affecting who qualifies for an insanity plea.

While incarcerated at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, D.C. Hinckley continued to write letters to Jodie Foster. He also exchanged letters with convicted serial killer Ted Bundy and even inquired about Charles Manson‘s mailing address.

Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan smile for photos under an umbrella.
President Ronald Reagan smiles and waves as he stands with First Lady Nancy Reagan after leaving George Washington Hospital after recovering from the assassination attempt. (Photo Credit: Ronald Reagan Library/Getty Images)

By 2011, a forensic psychiatrist told a judge that he believed Hinckley was no longer a risk to himself or others, kick-starting the process of reintegration into society. On August 5, 2016 Hinckley was released from St. Elizabeth Hospital and placed on probation. He was issued a long list of prohibitions that included:

  • Possession of firearms or weapons
  • Jodie Foster memorabilia
  • Watching violent movies and TV
  • Erasing his computer’s internet history
  • Visiting past or present homes of current or past presidents and government officials.

Freedom after 41 years

Hinckley sitting in front of the fence surrounding the White House.
Picture taken of John Hinckley Jr. in front of the White House. (Photo  Credit: AFP via Getty Images).

More from us: Nancy Reagan Was A Wing Woman For John Travolta And Princess Diana

As of June 2022, Hinckley will be unconditionally released from any charges and prohibitions – for the first time in over 40 years, he will be free. In response to the momentous occasion, Hinckley’s lawyer Barry Levine told The New York Times:

“It shows how one who is ravaged by mental disease, with good treatment and support from a loving family, which John had, and good mental health professionals, can actually salvage his life”.

The friends and family of Ronald Reagan have shown deep concern over Hinckley’s release. In a recent press release, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute stated: “We strongly oppose his release into society where he apparently seeks to make a profit from his infamy”.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast