The former girlfriend of John W. Hinckley Jr. stepped forward yesterday in an effort to help the presidential assailant win expanded freedoms from St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Leslie deVeau, who met Hinckley when both were patients at the Southeast Washington psychiatric facility, spoke with the hospital's staff yesterday to answer questions about their relationship. The meeting took place just as a court hearing was winding down on Hinckley's request to leave St. Elizabeths for a series of unsupervised four-day visits with his parents in Williamsburg.

Although deVeau was not called as a witness, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman yesterday decided to extend the hearing to learn what she told the hospital staff. He expects to get details from Hinckley's therapist when the hearing reconvenes tomorrow.

The relationship has emerged as a key issue in the hearing, with prosecutors expressing concern that Hinckley continues to harbor romantic feelings toward deVeau, even though she broke off the relationship years ago. The government contends that the feelings could make Hinckley more dangerous, pointing out that he shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as part of his obsessive interest in actress Jodie Foster.

According to a government source, deVeau told Hinckley's therapist yesterday that she considers Hinckley a very close friend based on their shared experiences in recovery at St. Elizabeths. The source, who read a report on the interview, said that deVeau, now 61, decided she could not continue their romantic relationship without losing her privacy.

The two became a couple at St. Elizabeths, where deVeau was also a patient after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1982 shooting death of her 10-year-old daughter. She was released in 1990.

The judge is considering whether to permit Hinckley to regularly visit his parents, John and Jo Ann, and other family members at the parents' home in Williamsburg.

Prosecutors have fought Hinckley's request to spend more time away from the hospital, where he has been confined since a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity in the shootings of Reagan and three others.

They have asked, for example, whether he could become distraught if he felt rebuffed by deVeau.

Yesterday, however, prosecutors strenuously objected to having the judge consider deVeau's new interview with the St. Elizabeths staff. They argued that the information should not be presented until Hinckley makes his next request for more liberties.

"Fine, they had a meeting" with deVeau, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Zeno. "What difference does that make?"

Hinckley's lead attorney complained that the government was trying to deny Hinckley his rights to increased freedoms as he proved himself mentally healthy. Doctors have said that Hinckley's mental illness has been in remission for more than a decade. The interview with deVeau might answer the very questions that prosecutors are raising, the lawyer contended.

"The government's position is always later, later on and later still," said attorney Barry Wm. Levine. "Their date is the twelfth of never."

Hinckley, 49, has enjoyed increasing liberties since 1999, starting with staff-chaperoned visits off the hospital campus. Last year, Friedman allowed him to have six unsupervised day-long visits and two overnight visits with his parents in the Washington area. He toured Baltimore's Inner Harbor and the National Zoo on some of the visits, records show, and had no problems.

Levine contends that the out-of-town visits are the next appropriate step in treatment.

John W. Hinckley Jr. (in 2003) will return to court tomorrow.