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John Hinckley Jr., Who Shot Ronald Reagan, Will Be Unconditionally Released In 2022

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The man who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 is on his way to full freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The president of the United States lies in a Washington hospital tonight in good condition after surgery to remove a bullet from his lung. Twenty-five-year-old John W. Hinckley Jr. was due to be arraigned tonight in Federal District Court in Washington. He's charged with trying to assassinate a president and assault with intent to kill a District of Columbia police officer.

FADEL: John Hinckley wounded Reagan and three others in a failed assassination attempt before spending the next three decades in a mental institution. Hinckley's lived with his family for the past five years. NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following this story for years, and she's here now to talk more about it. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So what happened in court today?

JOHNSON: Well, there was a bit of a surprise. The lawyers unveiled a settlement. John Hinckley will be monitored for the next nine months, and if he doesn't get into any more trouble, he'll win full unconditional release from court oversight in June 2022. Remember; Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity back in 1982, so he never went to prison. Instead, he spent about 34 years at St. Elizabeth's Hospital here in Washington, receiving medical treatment. Five years ago, the judge let Hinckley go live with his mom in Virginia, and the restrictions on him have been gradually easing over time.

FADEL: So people who remember that assassination attempt at the Hilton Hotel in 1981 might be surprised Hinckley may soon be completely free. How confident are authorities that he poses no risk?

JOHNSON: Well, his lawyer says Hinckley's been in remission for serious mental illness for decades now. Medical experts who evaluated him say he poses little risk to himself or others, and medical authorities twice have now recommended him for unconditional release. But prosecutors have been pretty wary. They say they want to watch his behavior because of two huge changes in his life. First, his mom died this past summer, so he's living on his own for the first time in 40 years. And his longtime therapist is preparing to retire. So the DOJ says the ball is in Hinckley's court. If there are no setbacks, he'll be totally free by next summer.

FADEL: So the judge says if Hinckley hadn't shot a president, he would have been free with no court oversight a long time ago. What's he been up to these past few years?

JOHNSON: You know, believe it or not, Hinckley had been working at an antique mall in Virginia before the pandemic started. He spends a lot of time writing songs and singing. He created a YouTube channel for his music. He also does some painting. Over the past year or two, he's been the primary caregiver for his mother. He's now 66. Remember; he was only 25 when he shot the president, White House Press Secretary Jim Brady and two law enforcement officers. And he's been barred from talking to any of those people, their families and to actress Jodie Foster. He said Foster inspired him back in 1981.

FADEL: What's the reaction been?

JOHNSON: Well, the Reagan Foundation issued a statement. It's not happy at all with this decision in court. The foundation says it thinks Hinckley is still a threat, and they strongly oppose his release. They hope the judge and the Justice Department will reconsider. In court, it was clear the judge and all the lawyers knew this would be controversial. Hinckley's lawyer offered the victims and their families what he called a profound apology. He says Hinckley has changed and this is a victory for mental health. As for the judge, he says this has been a long time coming. The hardest decision for him was the first time he let Hinckley free for 48 hours to be with his dying father. Prosecutors say they're going to file a motion with the court before next summer if they have any new concerns about Hinckley, but they don't expect to at this time.

FADEL: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thank you so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL SONG, "MARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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