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Crime Scene
Posted at 02:22 PM ET, 12/01/2011

In Hinckley hearings, judge alternates between feistiness, humor

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman is known as a thoughtful, low-key jurist who frequently pops off about society, cracks jokes and scolds attorneys — sometimes all in the same hearing.

Wednesday was no different. During a hearings that will determine how much more freedom presidential assailant John W. Hinckley might be granted from his psychiatric hospital, Friedman addressed topics ranging from detainees at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Hinckley’s advancing age.

As the hearing started, Hinckley’s attorney, Barry Wm. Levine, warned Friedman that they would be dealing with multiple layers of hearsay testimony from doctors and others.

Friedman said that wasn’t a problem because he had lots of recent experience with hearsay — in complex and secretive hearings involving Guantanamo Bay detainees who are challenging their confinements. Much of the evidence in those cases involves intelligence reports and other documents that rely heavily on hearsay.

In the last year or so, some federal judges have privately expressed frustration with a series of appeals court rulings they feel has scaled back the scope of a 2008 landmark opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court that granted the prisoners the right to challenge their confinements in federal court.

Add Friedman to that list. After a soliloquy that ranged from hearsay to jury instructions about hearsay and then to Guantanamo Bay, he deadpanned: “Apparently the court of appeals doesn’t take instruction well” — a clear reference to criticism that the appeals judges have ignored a Supreme Court mandate.

Friedman, who looks astonishingly like the actor Roy Scheider in the movie Jaws, then snapped at Assistant U.S. Attorney Nihar R. Mohanty for not turning over un-redacted Secret Service reports to Hinckley’s attorneys as the judge had recently ordered.

“Just do it,” the judge scolded. “By lunch.”

Head bowed, Mohanty said nothing as he returned to his seat.

When a witness mentioned that another doctor had recently retired, Friedman joked: “Retirement looks pretty good right now.”

When talk turned to Hinckley’s narcissism, Friedman cracked to courtroom laughter: “There are a lot of narcissistic people walking the street.” I didn’t hear it, but another reporter said Friedman then looked around the courtroom and made a reference to lawyers and journalists.

At another point, Friedman said the case had been around so long that the original trial judge’s son had just retired from a federal appeals court. (Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982.)

The case was so old that Friedman couldn’t recall why he had ruled a certain way a few years ago. “Somebody is going to have to remind me the rationale of what I did,” he said.

When testimony turned to the hospital’s plans for Hinckley if his 85-year-old mother died or “became unavailable,” Friedman said he was “envisioning a time” for Hinckley “in Williamsburg without his mother there.”

Noting that Jo Ann Hinckley lives in an exclusive luxury community that apparently has many older residents, Friedman turned to Hinckley and said: “You might be more in the age range of people in those communities than when we went down this road.”

Once a boyish-looking with a thatch of blonde hair, the gray-haired would-be assassin now looks every bit of his age: 56.

By  |  02:22 PM ET, 12/01/2011

Categories:  Del Quentin Wilber, From the Courthouse

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