Is John W. Hinckley Jr., the gunman who in 1981 nearly killed President Reagan and wounded three other men, ready for more freedom from the psychiatric hospital where he has been held for three decades?
A series of hearings starting Wednesday in the District’s federal court will determine just that.
Since being found not guilty in the shooting by reason of insanity in 1982, Hinckley has spent most of his time confined at St. Elizabeths Hospital. In recent years, however, he has been granted more privileges and liberty, especially when it comes to visits to his mother’s luxury community in Williamsburg.
A federal judge two years ago granted Hinckley a series of a 10-day visits to Williamsburg and also permitted him to obtain a driver’s license.
In July, St. Elizabeths filed a sealed proposal with a federal judge seeking permission to expand Hinckley’s freedom to two visits of 17-days each and six visits of 24-days each to Williamsburg.
The hospital’s doctors and therapists would also like the power to place Hinckley, now 56, on “convalescent leave” without court approval — meaning the presidential assailant could live with his mother for as long as the hospital wishes.
Hinckley’s attorney, Barry Wm. Levine, has long argued that his client is not dangerous and should be permitted more freedom. He could not be reached for comment on Monday, but told the Associated Press that he supported the hospital’s proposal and that “there is no evidence of him being dangerous, not a little bit, not marginal evidence.”
Hinckley has been diagnosed with depression and an unspecified psychiatric disorder, both of which appear to be in remission. He still suffers from narcissism, according to court records.
The hearings start Wednesday morning before U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman, who has granted Hinckley increasing amounts of liberty over the years. Levine is expected to call witnesses ranging from family members to Hinckley’s doctors to offer testimony in support of the hospital’s plans.
Federal prosecutors, who have long fought the expansion of Hinckley’s freedom, are opposing the proposal and are expected to counter in court with testimony from their own experts. In court papers that disclosed the hospital’s plans, prosecutors expressed concerns that Hinckley remains potentially dangerous and that the hospital’s “proposal for expanded conditions of release is premature and ill conceived.”
Assistant U.S. attorneys Sarah Chasson and Colleen Kennedy wrote that the hospital is seeking “sweeping expansions of Hinckley’s release privileges” with “little oversight by the Court and no ability by the Secret Service to conduct surveillance.”
The Secret Service, which protects the president, often monitors Hinckley’s movements. Prosecutors were particularly irked by a hospital proposal to allow Hinckley to have six “‘4-hour unaccompanied outings’ to unspecified locations outside his mother’s housing community’” because the Secret Service would not be told the trip’s destination.
The hospital’s plans for eventually settling Hinckley in Williamsburg are also flawed, prosecutors argued.
Noting that Hinckley has taken few steps to integrate himself into the community despite repeated visits in recent years, prosecutors wrote that Williamsburg may not be the right place for the presidential assailant if he is released from St. Elizabeths: “The Hospital appears to be unable to knit together either a web of effective mental-health providers or meaningful activities that Hinckley can use to integrate himself into the community.”
In the past, a federal judge has expressed concerns about what will happen when Hinckley’s mother, Jo Ann, is too old to care for him. She turns 86 next week, and his father, Jack, died in 2008.
One reason that prosecutors are so leery about granting Hinckley more freedom concerns his dealings with women — something that was at the heart of the assassination attempt.
Hinckley says he shot Reagan in the delussional hope of impressing the movie actress Jodie Foster, then an 18-year-old freshman at Yale University. In the years since the shooting, he has developed what prosecutors have called inappropriate feelings towards other women and has also misled his doctors about his desires and relationships.
That behavior, prosecutors say, hasn’t changed. He “continues to be deceptive regarding his relationships and interest in women,” they wrote.
For example, prosecutors said, Hinckley in 2009 searched the Internet for a photograph of his female dentist and then feigned a toothache to see her. “When he was caught, Hinckley claimed, falsely, that the dentist had invited him to view her personal photographs,” prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors also say he has not been candid with his psychotherapist and case manager. Although Hinckley told relatives and physicians at St. Elizabeths that he planned to marry his girlfriend, identified in court papers as “CB,” he appears to have not informed the psychotherapist about his plans, prosecutors said.
“At the best, Hinckley was not forthright with his therapist concerning this important matter,” they wrote. “At worst, Hinckley intended to conceal this important fact.”
Those concerns and others prompted prosecutors to argue in court papers that the assassination attempt proved that “Hinckley is a man capable of great violence,” and he “still is not sufficiently well to alleviate the concern that this violence may be repeated.”
In a story published in The Washingtonian in October, Levine expressed frustration that prosecutors routinely seek to block the expansion of his client’s liberty. “There is no request we make they do not oppose with great vigor,” Levine said.
On March 30, 1981, just 70 days into Reagan’s first term, Hinckley was standing just 15 feet from the president at the Washington Hilton hotel when the assailant pulled out a 22-caliber revolver and unleashed six shots at Reagan in 1.7 seconds. He hit the president, the White House press secretary James Brady, D.C. police office Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy.
Reagan was seriously wounded and nearly died; the bullet lodged just an inch from his heart, and the president lost more than half of his blood in the critical hours that followed. The president, who eventually recovered and went on to serve two-full terms, died in 2004.
Brady suffered a devastating head wound that left him permanently disabled. Delahanty suffered nerve damage that forced him to retire on full disability. McCarthy fully recovered.