On the afternoon of March 30, 1981, I was in a Chicago hotel finishing up a meeting with fellow public broadcasting representatives when the news bulletin flashed that President Ronald Reagan had been shot.
As we gathered around a television set and watched video of the chaotic moments outside the Washington hotel where the president had just finished a speech, my mind flashed to the scene in Dallas in 1963 with Jacqueline Kennedy reaching for the hand of a Secret Service agent after the shooting of her husband.
In addition to Reagan, three other people had been wounded: a Secret Service agent, a Washington police officer and James Brady, the president’s press secretary. Brady, who was partially paralyzed from the shooting, died last year.
It was a somber flight back to Dallas-Fort Worth that Monday afternoon, with very little talking on the plane. The pilot made a couple of announcements, giving passengers an update on the president’s condition, notably that he was out of surgery and had survived the assassination attempt.
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The nation was in shock, basically in mourning — for despite knowing that the president was alive, it was difficult not to think, particularly considering Reagan’s age, that he still might not make it.
There was added shock for me when I found out that the young gunman was a Texan who had grown up in Dallas and graduated from Highland Park High School.
The president, in true Reagan fashion, defied the odds and recovered rapidly, considering his injuries and the massive loss of blood. But doctors said he was in very good health.
It became apparent that the really sick person in this unfolding drama was the 25-year-old man who fired the shots, John Hinckley Jr., whose apparent motivation was to impress actress Jodie Foster.
To the dismay of many, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a mental institution in Virginia, where he has been ever since.
That was the right verdict, even though it prompted members of Congress and legislators in several states to rewrite insanity plea laws, making it more difficult for a defendant to use that defense successfully.
And that means we now have more people in state and federal prisons who really should be receiving treatment for mental illness.
Hinckley, who will turn 60 next month, has been confined for 34 years and, according to doctors, has made incredible progress in overcoming and being able to manage his sickness.
He has done so well, in fact, that the medical staff is recommending that he be released to his mother’s house in Williamsburg, Va., where he has been spending 17 days of the month for the past two years.
Hospital officials and Hinckley’s lawyer argued his case last week in a U.S. district court in Washington, D.C.
Hinckley’s attorney, according to The Washington Post, told the judge, “The psychosis and major depression that made Mr. Hinckley dangerous in 1981 have been in full and stable remission over two full decades. There is no dispute that Mr. Hinckley is clinically ready for the next step in treatment, which is convalescent leave.”
Of course, government prosecutors oppose the release and insist that, should he be freed, there ought to be an additional long list of restrictions on him, including wearing a monitor on his ankle. (Hinckley is being monitored by the Secret Service.)
It’s obvious that the real reason the government and others object to Hinckley’s release has nothing to do with his current mental state or the fact that he is deemed by medical professionals not to be a further danger to society.
They want him held because of who he injured: the president of the United States.
That’s not a good enough reason.
It’s time to let Hinckley go home — permanently.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775