The most notorious patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital soon will be leaving the grounds on outings supervised by hospital staff. But when John W. Hinckley Jr. starts making day trips, government officials say there will be no public notice because of concerns about his privacy and safety.
Hinckley, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shootings of President Reagan and three others, had been rebuffed for years in previous requests to leave the Southeast Washington hospital for field trips or visits with his parents. The hospital's staff members now believe that his condition has improved enough for him to go into the community from time to time with supervision, and a recent court ruling cleared the way for the outings.
The public, however, isn't entitled to know about the activities, according to lawyers for the District, federal prosecutors and Hinckley's attorney.
D.C. government officials said they are prohibited under privacy laws from publicly discussing any aspects of a mental patient's treatment. The hospital staff views day trips as a part of an overall treatment plan, according to Walter Smith, a spokesman for the D.C. corporation counsel's office.
Smith said Hinckley's trips away from the hospital also must be kept secret to ensure his safety and the safety of others who might be with him. Hinckley receives occasional threats, Smith said, and remains a focus of much public interest.
Hospital officials are honoring a longstanding agreement to give prosecutors notice of any Hinckley excursions so authorities can arrange for the Secret Service to monitor his whereabouts. But officials with the U.S. attorney's office said they are barred from making any public comment on his comings and goings.
Hinckley, 44, prevailed last spring in a court fight over the excursions. The U.S. attorney's office contended that any off-site trips--supervised or unsupervised--are "conditional releases" that must be approved by a court. Attorneys for Hinckley and the hospital argued that supervised day trips are a form of therapy and that the hospital has the final say.
A panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Jan. 15 in favor of Hinckley and the hospital. Prosecutors then asked the full appellate court to review the case. In May, it declined to do so. Last week, prosecutors decided against asking the Supreme Court to consider the matter.
The hospital has been free to arrange day trips for Hinckley since the ruling in May, but no one will say whether Hinckley has gone anywhere yet.
Hinckley's attorney, Barry Wm. Levine, said Hinckley will do "perfectly" on any excursions and is no longer a danger.
"We have worked with the hospital at a slow pace so that the public--whose attention is riveted on this case--can gain confidence that this is being done in an appropriate and deliberative way," Levine said, adding that he views supervised trips as a step toward Hinckley's eventual release.
Hinckley continues to need court approval to leave St. Elizabeths without an escort. Such a request could generate a hearing in which his experiences on supervised outings would be recounted and evaluated publicly.
Until winning in court this year, Hinckley had left St. Elizabeths only once, for a December 1986 visit with his parents. That supervised 12-hour outing drew complaints from Secret Service officials who said they still considered Hinckley a risk. Hospital officials later rejected plans for an Easter 1987 family visit after learning that Hinckley had corresponded with convicted serial killer Theodore Bundy. Officials also found numerous photographs in Hinckley's room of Jodie Foster, the actress Hinckley said he was trying to impress by shooting Reagan.
Prosecutors have cited those discoveries at numerous hearings over the past 12 years, warning that Hinckley had a history of masking symptoms even before he shot Reagan. They often noted a passage from a journal of Hinckley's, written in 1987, in which he states, "Psychiatry is a guessing game and I do my best to keep the fools guessing about me."
Hinckley's doctors and Levine say his narcissistic personality disorder and depression have been in remission for roughly a decade. For years, he has been able to roam the St. Elizabeths grounds in the day without an escort, and he has had a steady clerical job at the hospital.
In 1997, Hinckley's treatment team recommended that he be permitted a supervised holiday visit with his parents and girlfriend at an undisclosed location in the city. The hospital's review board approved the outing. But prosecutors objected, convincing U.S. District Judge June L. Green that Hinckley remained too dangerous and unpredictable to go anywhere. That led to the appeals and this year's decisions.
According to the court filings, St. Elizabeths staff escorts patients on hundreds of trips each year to meet family members or visit museums, theaters, bowling alleys, arboretums or other public places. The patients get what is known as "B-City passes" under a program dating back 43 years. The staff also takes groups of patients on trips about four times a month.
On the House floor last week, Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) said he found the idea of letting Hinckley out, even with supervision, to be unbelievable. "What is next, Mr. Speaker?" Traficant asked. "White House tours? Disney World? Beam me up."
But mental health specialists said they support the hospital's decisions concerning Hinckley's treatment and privacy.
"There may be public relations pressure to treat him differently, but he's a patient, not a prisoner," said Michael Faenza, president of the National Mental Health Association.