John Warnock Hinckley Jr. was born on May 29, 1955 in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and moved with his wealthy family to Dallas, Texas, at the age of 4. His late father was John Warnock Hinckley Sr., president of World Vision United States, and chairman and president of the Vanderbilt Energy Corporation. His mother is Jo Ann (Moore) Hinckley. He has two older siblings: sister Diane and brother Scott. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, Scott Hinckley became vice president of his father's oil business. Their sister, Diane, graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Hinckley grew up in University Park, Texas, and attended Highland Park High School in Dallas County. During his grade school years, he played football, basketball, hockey, soccer and baseball, learned to play the piano, and was elected class president twice.
After Hinckley graduated from high school in 1973, his family, owners of the Hinckley oil company, moved to Evergreen, Colorado, where the new company headquarters was located. He was an off-and-on student at Texas Tech University from 1974 to 1980 but eventually dropped out. In 1975 he went to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming a songwriter. His efforts were unsuccessful, and he wrote to his parents with tales of misfortune and pleas for money. He also spoke of a girlfriend, Lynn Collins, who turned out to be a fabrication. In September 1976, he returned to his parents' home in Evergreen.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hinckley began purchasing weapons and practicing with them. He was prescribed anti-depressants and tranquilizers to deal with emotional issues.
Hinckley became obsessed with the 1976 film Taxi Driver, in which disturbed protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) plots to assassinate a presidential candidate. The Bickle character was partly based on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who attempted to assassinate George Wallace. Hinckley developed an infatuation with actress Jodie Foster, who played a child prostitute in the film. When Foster entered Yale University, Hinckley moved to New Haven, Connecticut, for a short time to stalk her. He enrolled in a Yale writing class, began slipping poems and messages under Foster's door, and repeatedly called her.
Failing to develop any meaningful contact with the actress, Hinckley fantasized about conducting an aircraft hijacking or committing suicide in front of her to get her attention. Eventually, he settled on a scheme to impress her by assassinating the president, thinking that by achieving a place in history, he would appeal to her as an equal. Hinckley trailed President Jimmy Carter from state to state, and was arrested in Nashville, Tennessee, on a firearms charge. Penniless, he returned home. Despite psychiatric treatment for depression, his mental health did not improve. He began to target the newly elected president Ronald Reagan in 1981. To this purpose, he collected material on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Hinckley wrote to Foster just before his attempt on Reagan's life:
Over the past seven months I've left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint hope that you could develop an interest in me. Although we talked on the phone a couple of times I never had the nerve to simply approach you and introduce myself.... The reason I'm going ahead with this attempt now is because I cannot wait any longer to impress you.
On March 30, 1981, at 2:27 p.m. local time, Hinckley shot a .22 caliber Röhm RG-14 revolver six times at Reagan as he left the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., after the president addressed an AFL–CIO conference.
Hinckley wounded police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and critically wounded press secretary James Brady. Hinckley did not hit Reagan directly, but seriously wounded him when a bullet ricocheted off the side of the presidential limousine and hit him in the chest. Hinckley did not try to flee and was arrested at the scene. All of the shooting victims survived. Brady was hit in the right side of the head, and endured a long recuperation period, remaining paralyzed on the left side of his body until his death on August 4, 2014. Brady's death was ruled a homicide 33 years after the shooting.
At his trial in 1982, in Washington, D.C., having been charged with 13 offenses, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21. The defense psychiatric reports portrayed him as insane while the prosecution reports characterized him as legally sane. Hinckley, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) number 00137-177, was released from BOP custody on August 18, 1981. Soon after his trial, Hinckley wrote that the shooting was "the greatest love offering in the history of the world" and was disappointed that Foster did not reciprocate his love.
The verdict resulted in widespread dismay. As a consequence, the United States Congress and a number of states revised laws governing when the insanity defense may be used by the defendant in a criminal prosecution. Idaho, Montana, and Utah abolished the defense altogether. In the United States, prior to the Hinckley case, the insanity defense had been used in less than 2% of all felony cases and was unsuccessful in almost 75% of those trials. Public outcry over the verdict led to the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which altered the rules for consideration of mental illness of defendants in federal criminal court proceedings in the United States. In 1985, Hinckley's parents wrote Breaking Points, a book detailing their son's mental condition.
Changes in federal and some state rules of evidence laws have since excluded or restricted the use of testimony of an expert witness, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, regarding conclusions on "ultimate" issues in insanity defense cases, including whether a criminal defendant is legally "insane". But, this is not the rule among the majority of U.S. states in the early 21st century.
Vincent Fuller, an attorney who represented Hinckley during his trial and for several years afterward, said Hinckley has schizophrenia. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution, diagnosed Hinckley with narcissistic and schizoid personality disorders and dysthymia, as well as borderline and passive-aggressive features. At the hospital Hinckley was treated for narcissistic and schizotypal personality disorder and major depressive disorder.
Hinckley was confined at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. After Hinckley was admitted, tests found that he was an "unpredictably dangerous" man who might harm himself or any third party. In 1983, he told Penthouse that on a normal day he would "see a therapist, answer mail, play guitar, listen to music, play pool, watch television, eat lousy food and take delicious medication". Around 1987, Hinckley applied for a court order allowing him periodic home visits. As part of the consideration of the request, the judge ordered Hinckley's hospital room searched. Hospital officials found photographs and letters in Hinckley's room that showed a continued obsession with Foster, as well as evidence that Hinckley had exchanged letters with serial killer Ted Bundy and sought the address of Charles Manson, who had inspired two women to try to kill Gerald Ford. The court denied Hinckley's request for additional privileges.
In 1999, Hinckley was permitted to leave the hospital for supervised visits with his parents; he was granted longer unsupervised releases in 2000. These privileges were revoked when he was found to have smuggled materials about Foster into the hospital. Hinckley was allowed supervised visits with his parents again during 2004 and 2005. Court hearings were held in September 2005 on whether he could have expanded privileges to leave the hospital.
On December 30, 2005, a federal judge ruled that Hinckley would be allowed visits, supervised by his parents, to their home in Williamsburg, Virginia. The judge ruled that Hinckley could have up to three visits of three nights and then four visits of four nights, each depending on the successful completion of the last. All of the experts who testified at Hinckley's 2005 conditional release hearing, including the government experts, agreed that his depression and psychotic disorder were in full remission and that he should have some expanded conditions of release.
In 2007, Hinckley requested further freedoms, including two one-week visits with his parents, and a month-long visit. U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman denied that request on June 6, 2007.
On June 17, 2009, a federal judge ruled that Hinckley would be permitted to visit his mother for a dozen visits of 10 days at a time, rather than six, to spend more time outside of the hospital, and to have a driver's license. The court also ordered that Hinckley be required to carry a GPS-enabled cell phone to track him whenever he was outside of his parents' home. He was prohibited from speaking with the news media. The prosecutors objected to this ruling, saying that Hinckley was still a danger to others and had unhealthy and inappropriate thoughts about women. Hinckley recorded a song, "Ballad of an Outlaw", which the prosecutors claim is "reflecting suicide and lawlessness".
In March 2011, it was reported that a forensic psychologist at the hospital testified that "Hinckley has recovered to the point that he poses no imminent risk of danger to himself or others". On March 29, 2011, the day before the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt, Hinckley's attorney filed a court petition requesting more freedom for his client, including additional unsupervised visits to the Virginia home of Hinckley's mother, Joanne. On November 30, 2011, a hearing in Washington was held to consider whether he could live full-time outside the hospital. The Justice Department opposed this, stating that Hinckley still poses a danger to the public. Justice Department counsel argued that Hinckley had been known to deceive his doctors in the past.
By December 2013, the court ordered that visits be extended to his mother, who lives near Williamsburg. Hinckley was permitted up to eight 17-day visits, with evaluation after the completion of each one.
On August 4, 2014, James Brady died. As Hinckley had critically wounded Brady in 1981, the death was ruled a homicide. Hinckley did not face charges as a result of Brady's death because he had been found not guilty of the original crime by reason of insanity. In addition, since Brady's death occurred more than a year and a day after the shooting, prosecution of Hinckley was barred under the law of the District of Columbia in effect on the day of the shooting.
On July 27, 2016, a federal judge ruled that Hinckley would be allowed to be released from St. Elizabeth's on August 5, as he was no longer considered a threat to himself or others. The conditions of his release are that he has no contact with the Reagan family, the Brady family, or Jodie Foster. He will live with his 90-year-old mother and be restricted to a 50-mile zone around her home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Hinckley was released from institutional psychiatric care on September 10, 2016, and will live full-time at his mother's home. As part of his release, he is excluded from speaking to the press, has to work three days a week, can drive no more than 30 miles from his mother's home or 50 miles if attended, and must see a psychiatrist twice a month.
Hinckley is featured as a central character of the Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman musical Assassins, in which he sings a duet titled "Unworthy Of Your Love" about his obsession with Foster.
American new wave band Devo recorded a song "I Desire" for their fifth studio album, Oh, No! It's Devo, which brought the band controversy because the lyrics were taken directly from a poem written by Hinckley.
Hinckley's life leading up to the assassination attempt is fictionalized in the novel, Calf, by author Andrea Kleine. The novel also includes a fictionalization of Hinckley's former girlfriend, Leslie deVeau, whom he met at St Elizabeth's hospital.