Hinckley Can Leave D.C. Area for First Time

By Karlyn Barker and Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 31, 2005

A federal judge yesterday granted presidential assailant John W. Hinckley Jr.'s request to leave a psychiatric hospital in the District to make several overnight visits to his parents at their home near Williamsburg.

The visits will be the most freedom Hinckley has had since his arrest in 1981 for shooting President Ronald Reagan, press secretary James S. Brady and two law enforcement officers. He has been held at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington since 1982, when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Hinckley, 50, will be allowed to make three three-night visits to his parents' house in a gated luxury community. After a hospital assessment of the outings, Hinckley would be permitted four more visits of four nights each.

The trips are the latest steps that Hinckley's attorneys hope will lead to his outright release from the mental hospital. This is the first time he will be permitted to travel outside the region.

"This is wonderful news," said Barry Wm. Levine, the Hinckleys' attorney. "John is going home. His fate is in his own hands."

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman set numerous restrictions on what he called Hinckley's "limited conditional release." The hospital must submit a detailed itinerary at least two weeks ahead of the visits, and the government will be alerted to the plans. The Secret Service will continue to monitor Hinckley, as it has in recent years when he left the hospital.

"He is not permitted to leave one or both parents' supervision at any time during the course of the conditional release" except when the hospital allows him short trips in the community, Friedman ruled. The time spent away from his parents' supervision will be limited to 90 minutes.

Hinckley's parents, John and Jo Ann, are to call the hospital at least once a day during the visits and immediately alert authorities to any problems. Hinckley must return to St. Elizabeths, the judge ordered, "if there are any signs of decompensation or deterioration" in his mental condition "no matter how slight." His parents must provide the hospital with written feedback after every stay.

Hinckley must meet with a psychiatrist in the Williamsburg area at least once a visit. His treatment team at St. Elizabeths must interview him and his parents after each outing and provide a report to the court.

Hinckley has been winning more privileges in recent years, building on what doctors have characterized as a successful series of outings. With hospital supervision, he has taken more than 200 day trips to bowling alleys, shopping centers and other local places. He also joined his family in the past two years on more than a dozen unsupervised excursions in the Washington area, including at least eight overnight visits.

In an extensive opinion, Friedman cited testimony from doctors, who agreed at a hearing in September that Hinckley was ready for the visits. The doctors noted that Hinckley's mental illnesses -- a psychotic disorder and major depression -- have been in full remission for at least 11 years. He takes the drug Risperdal daily to prevent a relapse of his psychotic disorder.

Even though Hinckley's doctors agreed that he has responded well to the loosening of his restrictions, prosecutors have been wary, saying at court hearings that Hinckley has masked symptoms in the past and that he could pose a danger.

The federal government had opposed Hinckley's requests to visit Williamsburg, a three-hour drive from Washington.

Justice Department attorneys repeatedly raised concerns about whether he is capable of having normal relations with women. Hinckley has told his doctors that he wants more freedom so he can meet women and maybe find a wife.

It was Hinckley's "delusional" obsession with actress Jodie Foster that led him to try to assassinate Reagan. In addition to Reagan and Brady, the gunfire March 30, 1981, wounded D.C. police officer Thomas K. Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy. A year ago, the judge declined to loosen restrictions on Hinckley, saying he had questions about his relationship with Leslie deVeau, a former mental patient who was Hinckley's girlfriend for much of the past two decades. Hinckley has since broken up with her, but prosecutors have questioned Hinckley's interactions with other women, especially hospital staff, saying he appears to misread their intentions.

Friedman's ruling yesterday stopped short of giving Hinckley broader freedoms envisioned by his defense team and the hospital. Hinckley's attorneys had hoped for longer visits, up to seven nights, outside the area. The hospital had suggested that Hinckley could embark on other activities during the extended stays with his family, such as seeking a driver's license, looking for employment or getting vocational training, but Friedman said that was premature.

The judge said Hinckley was ready, however, to walk unescorted around his parents' neighborhood for stretches of up to 90 minutes. And he said gardening, shopping and cooking could be suitable activities during the stays.

Levine said the family didn't oppose the court's "excess of caution" but hoped the initial visit could be planned immediately and take place quickly. "It's all about acclimating to life outside of a structured environment," he said.

Channing Phillips of the U.S. attorney's office said, "We will need time to review and digest the opinion before deciding what steps to take, if any."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company