The amorous or not-so-amorous intentions of John W. Hinckley Jr. have been debated and dissected for days by doctors and lawyers appearing before the judge considering the fate of the man who shot President Ronald Reagan.

Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Hinckley, 50, has been committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital since his acquittal more than two decades ago. But as his mental illness has stabilized, he has been allowed short excursions from the psychiatric facility in Southeast Washington.

Now, in a court hearing expected to conclude today, Hinckley is seeking more freedom: He wants to see his parents more by making overnight trips to their home, outside the Washington area. And, according to testimony, he wants to meet women, perhaps at singles events, and maybe even find a wife.

"I know he's hopeful . . . that he can find a woman to be with," said Raymond F. Patterson, a psychiatrist who has known Hinckley for two decades and who examined him this summer for the government.

Hinckley's thoughts about and encounters with women have been the focus of the hearing, from the "delusional" longings for actress Jodie Foster that led him to open fire on Reagan to the "personal spark" that he sensed last year with a young psychology student at St. Elizabeths.

Hinckley was an aimless college dropout when he came to Washington and shot Reagan and three others in March 1981. On the day of the shootings, authorities found an unmailed letter to Foster in the hotel room where Hinckley was staying. "Jodie," the letter said, "I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you, whether it be in total obscurity or whatever."

At the time, Foster was a student at Yale University. In the months before the shooting, Hinckley traveled 10 times to New Haven, Conn., where Foster was living, telephoned her dormitory room six times, left love letters for her and made tapes of himself playing the guitar and singing love songs.

Hinckley has been found to suffer from major depression, a psychotic disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, but he is by all accounts much improved. His depression and psychosis are in remission, and the narcissistic disorder is significantly "attenuated," doctors say.

But how ready is Hinckley to venture a bit more into the real world and into the ups and downs of romance and rejection? It was the question on everyone's mind during three days of hearings last week in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman, who has overseen the case since 2001.

On one side were Hinckley's attorneys, led by Barry Wm. Levine, who tried at almost every turn to minimize the psychiatric significance of his client's interest in women, emphasizing instead the progress he has made for years.

Opposite Levine were Justice Department lawyers Thomas E. Zeno and Sarah T. Chasson, just as dogged in their efforts to depict Hinckley's recent encounters with women as evidence of a suitor still prone to dangerously misreading the women he meets.

Each side offered a parade of expert testimony. The assessments were often conflicting, depending on whether the witness was called by the defense or the prosecution. There was little middle ground. The experts ceded little -- or, in the case of Hinckley's therapist -- nothing to the other side.

There was nothing romantic, psychologist Sidney Binks insisted, in Hinckley's interest in the psychology student who interned at the hospital last year. Yes, he offered to sing to her and, yes, he walked her to her car on occasion. But she was not the only woman he had wanted to sing for, nor was she the only staff member he escorted to the parking lot, Binks said.

Chasson asked why Hinckley told another doctor that there was a "personal spark" between him and the intern. What else, she asked, could those words mean?

"I don't know," Binks replied, what Hinckley would have meant by such a "spark."

Taking it all in was Hinckley, dressed each day in a suit and tie, and seated at a table with his three attorneys. His parents, John and Jo Ann, who have stood by their troubled son through the years, were in the first row of the gallery.

Even experts for the government praised the parents' devotion to Hinckley and his therapy, although there is concern that before long they might be too old to provide the sort of care, support and supervision that Hinckley would require if he is allowed longer stretches away from the hospital.

After 14 court-approved visits around Washington, Hinckley now wants to start visiting his parents for several days at a time at their home in a luxury gated community near Williamsburg.

It would be another step toward what Hinckley and his family hope will be his eventual release from St. Elizabeths, a chance for him to start learning how to cook and how to use the Internet, an opportunity to see family friends and to meet the psychiatrist who probably would care for him if he was released.

It also would be a chance for him to start meeting women beyond the confines of the psychiatric hospital.

For most of his 23 years at St. Elizabeths, Hinckley had a girlfriend. The woman, Leslie deVeau, was a patient as well, committed to St. Elizabeths after she killed her child in 1982 and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The romance continued even after her release in 1990. Later, as Hinckley began lobbying for more freedom, the government's lawyers and doctors wanted to know more about his relationship with deVeau, as did the Secret Service, which continues to follow him. Like Hinckley's parents, she would have to have been available for regular interviews with the doctors and lawyers in the case.

But she was reluctant to be subjected to such intense scrutiny, creating an obstacle to Hinckley's bid for greater freedom. So after discussing the issue with his doctors, Hinckley decided in January to break up with deVeau.

Although saddened by the breakup, Hinckley has moved on, his therapist testified. "I think he's coped very well," Binks said.

How he was coping was more of an issue among the experts.

Robert Phillips, a psychiatrist who has examined Hinckley for the government, testified that Binks was disconnected from the "obvious reality" of Hinckley's interactions with women. They are not necessarily "pathologic," Phillips said, "but they are a concern."

"It is normal for Mr. Hinckley to engage in these explorations," Phillips said. But who he has sought out bears more examination, the psychiatrist said.

The intern, who shared Hinckley's interest in animals, was one woman he had his eye on. When asked about her, Hinckley told Patterson, "She's beauuuuuuutiful," the psychiatrist testified.

Then there was the chaplain. Hinckley admitted that he scheduled a meeting with her not for spiritual reasons but for a chance to see a "pretty lady," Patterson said. "He was taking a shot," Patterson told the court.

And there was the visitor, a woman, who for several years has brought Hinckley food for the cats he tends to on the St. Elizabeths campus.

After he told her of his sadness over the breakup with deVeau, the woman asked Hinckley what she could do to help. Hinckley asked whether she had considered being "intimate" with him, according to testimony.

No, she told him, she did not think of him in that way.

When Binks, Hinckley's psychologist, was asked for his assessment of the encounter, he said he talked to Hinckley about it and was not concerned. Hinckley was trying, Binks said, to make sure the woman's signals weren't crossed.

"I believe," Binks said, "that he was seeking clarification."

John W. Hinckley Jr.'s longing for actress Jodie Foster prompted his 1981 attack on Ronald Reagan.