By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Presidential assailant John W. Hinckley Jr. will be allowed to obtain a D.C. driver's license and spend more time at his mother's home in Virginia under a ruling yesterday by a federal judge.
The decision is the latest in recent years expanding privileges for Hinckley, who has been held at St. Elizabeths Hospital since he was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan, his press secretary and two law enforcement officers. The psychiatric hospital is seeking to gradually increase Hinckley's freedom so that doctors can evaluate whether he is nearing the point where he can be released and live independently with his mother in the Williamsburg area.
In a 43-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman increased from seven to 10 days the time Hinckley may spend on visits to Williamsburg unaccompanied by hospital staffers. He also granted a request allowing Hinckley to work as a volunteer in the Williamsburg area and to take driving lessons.
The ruling comes nearly a year after federal prosecutors and Hinckley's lawyers sparred in Friedman's courtroom during a lengthy set of hearings over the hospital's proposal. Prosecutors had objected to increasing the length of visits and to granting some of the hospital's other requests. They argued that the hospital's doctors underestimated the reach of Hinckley's mental illness, pointing to what they called "inappropriate" relationships with women. Hinckley shot Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster.
However, Friedman ruled that the visits are therapeutic and that the 53-year-old is not a danger to himself or others. Hinckley's psychotic disorder and depression have been in remission for at least 15 years, and perhaps as many as 21 years, the judge noted in the opinion.
"The evidence suggesting that Mr. Hinckley will not become dangerous under the hospital's proposal . . . far outweighs the evidence suggesting that he will become dangerous," Friedman wrote.
Hinckley's attorney, Barry Wm. Levine, said he was pleased by the ruling, calling it "a good day for mental health law."
"John looks forward to the opportunity to make some contributions in some way to society," Levine said in an interview.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Zeno declined to comment.
Friedman's ruling was not a complete victory for Hinckley, however.
The judge refused to allow Hinckley to perform unsupervised volunteer work in the District, a hospital request opposed by prosecutors. In the District, Hinckley must remain supervised by a hospital staffer at all times.
Under yesterday's ruling, Hinckley will be required to carry a GPS-enabled cellphone so authorities and doctors can ensure that he is following his release restrictions.
The judge also ruled that Hinckley would not be granted more social privileges unless he successfully completes volunteer work during three straight visits to Williamsburg. The expanded privileges include increasing the amount of unaccompanied time in his mother's subdivision and more free time for recreation and other activities.