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Opinion Patti Davis: No amount of time since the attempt on my father’s life is enough to heal

In this March 30, 1981, photo, President Ronald Reagan is shoved into a limousine by secret service agents after being shot outside a Washington hotel.
In this March 30, 1981, photo, President Ronald Reagan is shoved into a limousine by secret service agents after being shot outside a Washington hotel. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

I would like to stop writing about John Hinckley Jr. I wrote for Time magazine in 2000 and in 2011 about the man who tried to assassinate my father, on both occasions regarding his bids for increased freedom. But the guy won’t go away. In 2016, Hinckley asked for and was granted full release from St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, the psychiatric institution where restrictions on his freedom had been gradually relaxed.

Now he wants to leave Williamsburg, Va., where he lives with his elderly mother and older brother, and come to California to pursue a music career. He’d also like to do some traveling, according to his lawyer, maybe to Texas to visit his sister. At a hearing on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman, who has indulged Hinckley’s requests for years, said, “It’s been a long time since 1981,” adding that he thinks Hinckley is ready for “the next step.”

On March 30, 1981, Hinckley waited outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. The day was gray and misty, the sky telling no time of day. But Hinckley knew what time my father was scheduled to exit the hotel. At 2:25 p.m., his target walked out. 

The 25-year-old man, nondescript aside from his blond hair, yelled, “President Reagan! President Reagan!” My father turned, smiled and raised his arm, waving. Then the shots rang out. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy jumped into the path of the bullets to save my father. He was shot in the abdomen. Thomas Delahanty, a D.C. policeman, was shot in the neck. White House press secretary James S. Brady was shot in the head. Pieces of his brain spilled out onto the cement. It seemed at first as though my father wasn’t shot, until he started coughing up blood in the car. At the hospital, he almost died. The exploding bullet fragments had come within millimeters of his heart.

Unlike most assassins, Hinckley didn’t wait for a clean shot so that he could take out his intended victim. He shot the other men out of the way. He had studied Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s assassin. Obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, Hinckley thought killing the president would impress her. He called his assassination attempt “the greatest love offering in the history of the world.”

In 1982, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital. That might seem like a “long time” ago to Friedman, but not to those of us who were forever changed that day. 

Enter Barry Levine, Hinckley’s attorney for all these decades. I spoke to him in 2000 for my Time article, and I found him to be a gratingly loquacious spin doctor. He told me about Hinckley’s deep remorse; he told me Hinckley’s mental illness — narcissistic and schizoid personality disorders — had gone so far into remission that he was no longer a danger to others. Somehow, Levine got lucky when the court case landed with Friedman, who has basically never denied Hinckley’s periodic bids for increased freedom, even after it was discovered he was writing letters to Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.

In 2011, I spoke to Sarah Brady, who told me that her husband was by then blind, suffered from spinal stenosis and, for the past year, had been screaming in his sleep. She believed he was reliving the day he was shot. A medical examiner ruled Brady’s death in 2014 a homicide stemming from the gunshot wound he suffered at Hinckley’s hands.

I won’t be surprised if Friedman says yes to Hinckley again in response to his latest request. If that happens, then he will move to California — where I, my brother Michael and Foster live. Neither Friedman nor Levine will be haunted by a long-ago day that lives in those affected by it like a shredded nerve that will never heal. Neither the judge nor Hinckley’s lawyer had to listen to Jim’s screams night after night. Jim was never rewarded with the grace of a “next step.” He remained frozen for the remainder of his life in the nightmare created by John Hinckley Jr.

For the rest of us, no amount of time that passes will be long enough.

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