After 13 months of preparation— psychoanalytical probing and, more recently, legal wrangling— a federal court in Washington last week got down to its investigation of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.
The fact that the attempt took place was not at issue. John W. Hinckley Jr. was arrested by Secret Service agents outside the Washington Hilton, a smoking gun still in his hands. What is in dispute is whether or not the 26-year-old Hinckley was of sound mind when he shot the president and three of the men around him. Hinckley faces 13 charges as a result of the shootings. And a favorable ruling—that he was not responsible for his actions at the time— could make the difference between a life sentence and freedom after a few years’ treatment in an institution.
In the opening week of the trial, Hinckley’s most powerful advocate, fittingly, was his mother, JoAnn. Composed for the most part, she nevertheless broke down on occasion at the poignancy of her own testimony relating to
the inadequacy of her son—and perhaps of the wealthy parents (his father is a Denver oilman) who tried hard but failed to make him the middle-class success his background clearly preordained.
Hinckley, said his mother, was “haunted, depressed and despairing” for weeks before the shooting. But his troubles had first surfaced much earlier. After a few unhappy years as a college student, he had started to go downhill, becoming more and more withdrawn, more and more antisocial. He drifted, living on the streets, borrowing
money, failing at everything he tried and returning home—each time a seemingly hopeless case. On one occasion Hinckley’s parents allowed him to cash $3,600 worth of stock in his father’s company, part of his inheritance, to take a writing course at Yale. But he lasted only a week. His clothes, he said, were different from those of his fellow students.
In desperation, on psychiatric advice, the family devised “The Plan”—a schedule to get Hinckley out of the house and onto his own feet. Overcoming her fear that he was so depressed he
might take his own life, Mrs. Hinckley pressed ahead with it—driving her son to Denver airport to launch him on yet another venture. The irony was marked. The Plan was supposed to mature on March 30, 1981—the day he shot the president.
JoAnn Hinckley will be followed on the stand this week by a small army of psychologists and psychiatrists who will testify in support of the contention that her son did not know what he was doing. More will no doubt be heard of Hinckley’s morbid obsession with actress Jodie Foster, a freshman at Yale when he made his brief appearance there. As many as 50 poems found by police after the shootings were addressed to her. One of them, A Reluctant Swan Song, appeared to foreshadow his intention. “Criticize you may this act of mine,” wrote Hinckley. “I trust you’ll appreciate the romantic reasons. One final stand and the poet must die.”
Whatever view the court takes about his sanity, Hinckley will be spared that fate. And there may be some justice in the fact. None of his victims actually died, though two, presidential Press Secretary James Brady and police officer Thomas Delahanty, suffered injuries from which they will never fully recover. But for them, as for their unhappy assailant, justice is a relative affair.
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