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UPDATE: Hinckley Awaits Chance for More Freedom

Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page C02

The case of John W. Hinckley Jr. has been dormant in U.S. District Court in Washington since November, when a judge denied Hinckley's request for longer trips away from the mental hospital that has been his home for nearly a quarter-century.

But that doesn't mean federal prosecutors have heard the last from the man who shot President Ronald Reagan and three others.

Judge Paul L. Friedman ruled against Hinckley on Nov. 24, agreeing with the U.S. attorney's office, which opposed granting him more freedom.

By law, however, Hinckley may renew his request to Friedman after a six-month waiting period. And that period ends in five weeks.

Hinckley, who shot Reagan on March 30, 1981, has been a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington since being found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982. He was 25 at the time of the assassination attempt. On May 29, he'll turn 50. And over the years, the hospital and courts have granted him small measures of freedom.

In John Howard Pavilion, the fortresslike building that houses the criminally insane at St. Elizabeths, Hinckley lives on a minimum-security ward, and he is a familiar sight strolling the grounds. On an afternoon not long ago, he could be seen walking by himself toward John Howard Pavilion along a winding road, a plastic Coke bottle in his right hand, his sneakers crusted with mud, his windbreaker flapping in the breeze.

"How are you, John?" asked a staff member as Hinckley entered the lobby.

Hinckley nodded, took off his jacket and walked through a metal detector with a blank expression. Without being told, he stepped up on a two-foot podium and spread his arms, and a guard scanned him with a metal-detecting wand. Then he stepped down, saying nothing, and headed back to his ward.

"Hi, John," said a staffer, smiling and holding open a heavy metal door, which then slammed shut behind them and locked.

Like others at St. Elizabeths who were acquitted of crimes by reason of insanity, Hinckley will go free only if a judge someday decides he is no longer a threat to himself or others. But he is periodically allowed to leave for overnight visits with his parents, as long as they stay in the Washington area. In November, he asked Friedman to grant him a series of visits with his parents in Williamsburg, for four days at a stretch.

The judge said no, siding with prosecutors, who have regularly opposed attempts by Hinckley to his expand his freedom. The law says "a court shall not be required to entertain a second or successive motion for release more often than once every six months," meaning Hinckley would have to wait before asking again.

But he has nothing if not time.

-- Paul Duggan

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