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How the Trial of John Hinckley Jr. Shaped American Law

How the Trial of John Hinckley Jr. Shaped American Law

Norfolk, VA – As written on The Current Affairs Times, as of Jun15th, John Hinckley Jr., the man who took a pass at Ronald Reagan’s life 41 years ago, is free from court oversight and may roam the earth as he sees fit. Hinckley was never found guilty but, because of his exculpation on the grounds of insanity, has been tethered to mental institutions and kept under the close supervision of psychologists and medical experts since his trial ended in 1982.

Hinckley’s assassination attempt wounded President Reagan, Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, Officer Thomas Delahunty, and Secret Press Secretary James Brady. The injuries suffered by the first three men were minor. However, Brady’s wounds left him paralyzed, eventually taking his life 33 years later. 

Hinckley’s trial lasted seven weeks, where his defense successfully argued that he acted not by free will, but was so severely deranged by illness and further manipulated by Martin Scorcese’s 1976 film, Taxi Driver, that he couldn’t be held responsible for his actions. They argued that a mix of schizophrenia, depression, and narcissistic personality disorder resulted in an incredible debilitation that disallowed him to separate fact from fiction.

The legal precedent during that time was that, if someone appealed to insanity as the cause of their defendant’s criminal action, the prosecution bore the burden of proving sanity.

During Hinckley’s trial, Doctor Carpenter, an expert on schizophrenia, concluded, “It is my opinion on a purely intellectual level that he didn’t know that he had that knowledge, that those were illegal acts… he was not reasoning about the legality issue itself.”

It was revealed that, for years, Hinckley stalked not only President Reagan but President Carter and actress Jodie Foster as well. It was his sexual attraction and desire to impress Foster, who starred in Taxi Driver where she played Iris, a twelve-year-old prostitute, that initiated his lethal impulse. The defense claimed that his actions directly mirrored the plot of Scorcese’s film and that his mental illness coerced him into believing he was Travis Bickle, the movie’s main character. 

Hinckley was just 25 when he tried to kill then US President Ronald Reagan in 1981 but 40 years later, a US District Court judge has determined he no longer poses a threat to the public

The Trial

The trial played out as one of the dueling experts. Each time the prosecution brought in an expert from the medical field to claim Hinckley operated sanely–pointing things out like his choice to parse through bullet collections to procure the ones with the deadliest tips, to his long history of authoring lucid love letters to Foster–the defense called to the bar their expert to rebut, and to make the case that the evidence of extreme mental illness can and did take subtler forms. 

For the final piece of evidence, the defense screened Taxi Driver for the jury. And when the jury came back with their conclusion, the conclusion read “not guilty.” However, stipulations forced him to remain in mental institutions and under the care of doctors. 

When the verdict came, there was an immediate gasp of outrage among citizens and public officials. And because of it, US law went through a period of rapid reform regarding how pleas for insanity were to be considered. The Insanity Defense Act of 1984 completely redrew definitions and formed new restrictions. It limited the scope and influence of expert opinion on evaluating insanity and flipped the burden of proof so, instead, it always fell on the defense to prove insanity rather than on the prosecution to establish sanity. 

State governments also bounced into action. Over half of the States passed laws, further restricting appeals to insanity. And other states, like Utah, banned the plea outright. 

Additionally, in 1993, Congress–along with the staunch support of the famed member of the NRA, Ronald Reagan–passed the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act. The bill, titled in honor of Hinckley’s most damaged victim, James Brady, instituted federal background checks and imposed five-day waiting periods on all US firearm purchases. 

Now, 41 years later, John Hinckley Jr. is fully emancipated and plans to launch a career as a musician. He’s scheduled to make his first public performance on July 8th at the Brooklyn Market Hotel, embarking on what he’s calling his “Redemption Tour.” 

Image and Thumbnail Credits: Alliance/DPA


  1. The Trial of John Hinckley Jr. and Its Impact on Expert Testimony
  2. Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984
  3. 1991 Reagan Approves the Brady Bill
  4. Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
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