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Would-be assassin Hinckley going free, but faces plenty of limits on his new life

Is it time to let John Hinckley go? There are doubters, with the daughter of Ronald Reagan prominent among them. It’s an uncomfortable thought, that a man who gravely wounded a president would be released from custody, but this also was an unusual case.

There will be enough continuing restrictions on Hinckley’s habits and movements to provide at least some level of comfort with the decision, made by a cautious judge with the agreement of the doctors who have treated him for his mental illness following that day in March 1981 when he shot Reagan and three others, putting James Brady in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. If it’s uncomfortable, it seems defensible, nonetheless.

The reason is that not all crimes are equal. Even within categories, the law appropriately recognizes distinctions that are based on intent. Homicides and attempted homicides are among them.

For example, the law weighs a person who accidentally kills a person in a car differently from one who drives drunk and kills someone. And that person is judged differently from one who kills in a moment of passion, and that one in a different scale from a paid assassin. Death is the issue in each case, but intent matters both in defining the crime and determining the severity of the punishment it requires.

So it was with Hinckley, who was mentally ill when he shot Reagan in a twisted attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster. She had played a role in the Martin Scorsese film “Taxi Driver,” which Hinckley had watched repeatedly. The question was whether Hinckley understood the difference between right and wrong and if he was able to regulate his conduct accordingly.

He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has spent much of the intervening 35 years confined to a mental hospital, undergoing treatment. Given that Hinckley’s mental illness was not in doubt, he was appropriately sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Washington, D.C., rather than to a penitentiary. The public was protected from a dangerous man, and he received treatment instead of prison confinement that could have made his condition worse.

The trial produced a reaction, though, that restricted the use of the insanity defense in many places around the country. It was unnecessary on a couple of counts: One, the Hinckley trial produced a legally appropriate outcome and, two, that defense was rarely used in any case and was even more rarely successful.

This would be a good time to review state and federal laws on dealing with criminal acts by mentally ill people. The understanding and treatment of such illnesses is much advanced since that shocking day in 1981. It seems likely that the law will need to catch up.

In the meantime, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman has imposed several wise conditions that Hinckley must abide by to maintain the freedom he has been granted. Among those conditions, he will be required to stay within a 50-mile radius of Williamsburg, Va., where he will live with his mother; to surrender information about his mobile phone and vehicles he will drive; to maintain the browser history of his computer; and to refrain from uploading content to the Internet or using social media without the unanimous consent of his doctors.

If he complies, the restrictions could be phased out starting in a year to 18 months. If he relapses or violates these conditions, he could be returned to the hospital.

Friedman has overseen this case since 2001 and has been thoughtful and cautious in his handling of it. His decision to allow Hinckley his freedom will be criticized by some, and to be sure, there are reasons for concern. But it’s a ruling that will continue to protect the public and that also recognizes that while people must be held accountable for their crimes, intent matters.

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