For Hinckley, small steps toward an uncertain freedom

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010

John W. Hinckley Jr. is a man of routine. On warm days, he likes to sit on a bench outside the John Howard Pavilion on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital and work his way through a stack of newspapers and magazines. He's often seen walking alone on the hospital grounds or ducking into Martin's, a nearby carryout, to pick up four-packs of 9 Lives to feed to stray cats.

At 54, the onetime presidential assailant lives like a kid on perpetual spring break. The closest thing he has to a 9-to-5 job is a volunteer gig at the hospital library. He fills his free time strumming on his guitar, crafting pop songs about ideal love, or going on supervised jaunts to the beach or a bowling alley.

After 28 years at the hospital in Southeast Washington, however, the realities of middle age have begun to set in.

His father, Jack Hinckley, died in 2008, inspiring the son to pen a tribute song titled "Hero." His mother, Jo Ann, is 84. His siblings, Scott and Diane, live in Dallas. Over the government's steadfast objections, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, who oversees his case, and Hinckley's doctors are slowly preparing him for what they see as inevitable: his release from St. Elizabeths -- life on his own.

Toward that end, Friedman four years ago let Hinckley make overnight trips to his parents' home in Williamsburg. As the visits passed without incident, the judge gradually increased their duration. Last June, Friedman upped the stays from seven to 10 days each for 12 visits. He also let Hinckley obtain a driver's license.

Hinckley now enjoys the most freedom he has had since he was arrested in 1981 for shooting President Ronald Reagan, two law enforcement officers and White House press secretary Jim Brady. Brady suffered brain damage and remains partially paralyzed.

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Friedman concluded that the depression that drove Hinckley, then a 25-year-old college dropout, to stalk actress Jodie Foster and try to impress her by killing a president has been in remission for at least 15 years. The judge said Hinckley still suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, but to a much lesser extent, partly because of a court order that forbids him to talk to the press.

That order, in place for two decades, ended a stream of letters to news outlets, including one in which Hinckley claimed to be a political prisoner and offered to trade places with Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Hinckley splits his time between two very different gated communities: the crumbling campus of St. Elizabeths and Kingsmill, the 2,900-acre luxury resort community in Williamsburg to which his parents relocated from Denver in the late 1980s to be closer to him. One has a shelter for the homeless, knee-high weeds and boarded-up buildings; the other has three championship golf courses, a yacht club and a spa. Around St. Elizabeths, the fatal shooting of a resident might earn a brief in the newspaper. Around Kingsmill, the fatal shooting of a pet cat is front-page news.

Hinckley has voiced his preference. If released, he hopes to settle in Williamsburg. And who can blame him? Instead of Martin's, he has the Wine and Cheese Shop, where Hinckley and his mother are a frequent sight. Instead of carryouts, he has the Mill, a gourmet coffee shop overlooking tennis courts, where the manager says Hinckley sat recently with a small group of people drinking coffee. Even the state mental hospital in Williamsburg, Eastern State, where he volunteers in a library, is more pleasant.

But Williamsburg compares unfavorably to the District's Ward 8 in one crucial way: The residents there are not quite as accommodating.

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