Federal judge grants more freedom to John Hinckley Jr., Reagan’s would-be assassin

A federal judge on Friday gave President Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin modestly more freedom, allowing the 58-year-old who has lived and received mental health treatment for more than three decades at St. Elizabeths Hospital to spend 17 days a month visiting his mother’s home town of Williamsburg, Va.

John W. Hinckley Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in Reagan’s shooting, must prove to U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman that he can better integrate himself and socialize in Williamsburg before his release will go any further. But in a 106-page opinion expanding Hinckley’s monthly Virginia visits from 10 to 17 days, Friedman said he was persuaded that Hinckley “will not be a danger to himself or to others” if he is given more time away from the hospital.

“Indeed, being in Williamsburg on a set of regularly scheduled visits of longer duration might well provide new opportunities for employment and structured community activities than are presently available to him because of his sporadic presence there,” Friedman wrote.

The opinion in resolves the latest round of legal wrangling over what to do with Hinckley, although it does not bring the case to a close. Hinckley’s doctors and therapists had asked Friedman to gradually expand the length of Hinckley’s trips from the District to his mother’s home in Williamsburg to up to 24 days and eventually allow him to reside there full time.

Friedman, though, wrote that it would be “unwise” to allow Hinckley more freedom without further evaluation and court involvement, noting that Hinckley “continues to exhibit deceptive behavior even when there are no symptoms of psychosis or depression” and had “not cultivated any friends or established ties to any groups of people in Williamsburg.”


John Hinckley Jr., seen in November 2003 arriving at U.S. District Court in Washington, tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981 (Evan Vucci/AP)

Federal prosecutors had advocated a go-slow approach that would not immediately expand Hinckley’s visitation period, emphasizing the dangerous circumstances of the 1981 shooting that wounded the president and three others. They noted that Hinckley lied to mental health professionals about having seen two movies — lies that were uncovered only because the Secret Service had been monitoring his movements.

Informed of the opinion by a reporter, Hinckley’s attorney, Barry Wm. Levine, said that he was “gratified” that Hinckley will have more freedom, even if the expansion is gradual.

“While we had hoped we would be able to avoid having to go back to court again, we don’t mind that, because John has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate that the conditions that existed back in 1981 no longer exist today,” Levine said. “We think John is on a perfect trajectory moving toward unconditional release, and this is part of that.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District declined to comment, saying officials were still reviewing the opinion.

Friedman’s order allows Hinckley to drive alone to specific destinations — which Levine said will help him live normally in Williamsburg — but requires him to carry a GPS-enabled cellphone during unsupervised activities. Friedman wrote that court and mental health officials would evaluate Hinckley’s progress after eight 17-day visits.

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Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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