Psychiatrists at the hospital where John W. Hinckley Jr. has lived since being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan told a federal court Wednesday that he should be released full time to his mother’s home in Williamsburg.
Officials at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington joined Hinckley’s request to be set free and treated as an outpatient, with conditions.
“The psychosis and major depression that made Mr. Hinckley dangerous in 1981 have been in full and stable remission for over two full decades,” his attorney, Barry Wm. Levine, told U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman in Washington. “There is no dispute that Mr. Hinckley is clinically ready for the next step in treatment, which is convalescent leave.”
Federal prosecutors opposed the release of Hinckley, 59, without additional restrictions, saying those suggested by Hinckley and his treatment teams are inadequate to protect the Virginia community where he has spent time each month with increasing degrees of independence.
“Now is not the time to loosen the reins of the hospital,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen M. Kennedy said.
Prosecutors asked for 35 conditions, including that Hinckley wear an ankle monitoring bracelet and that a risk assessment be prepared in case his family cannot afford his health care and living costs, which total as much as $100,000 a year.
The arguments came on the first of at least three days of hearings to decide Hinckley’s future. When Friedman last expanded the terms of Hinckley’s conditional release in December 2013, he issued a decision about a year after listening to nine days of evidence.
Hinckley watched attentively in court Wednesday, dressed in a gray blazer and a white open-collared dress shirt. He appeared sluggish and heavy-lidded but seemed relaxed. He smiled at times as his brother and sister testified, explaining that Hinckley spends time singing, playing guitar and taking photographs, and that he has a female friend. His brother said Hinckley recently ducked out of a movie when he realized it included Jodie Foster, the actress whom he said he had hoped to impress by the attack on Reagan.
Hinckley was 25 when he shot and wounded the president, press secretary James Brady and two others on March 30, 1981, outside the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue NW.
Hinckley was at St. Elizabeths full time until the late 1990s, when he was permitted occasional supervised outings with family members. Over time, those trips were expanded.
In 2013, convinced that Hinckley no longer presented “a danger to himself or to others,” Friedman allowed him to spend up to 17 days a month under 29 conditions in southeast Virginia, where his mother owns a home across from the 13th hole of a gated golf course development.
Designed to help integrate him into the community, the rules let Hinckley, who is monitored by the Secret Service, take daily walks and go on a number of unsupervised outings of up to four hours each month. But Hinckley must limit his access to the Internet, log his daily activities, carry a trackable cellphone, and stay away from the president and members of Congress.
Levine said Hinckley has complied without incident for hundreds of days, acting appropriately when approached by the news media, forming friendships with people of both sexes, and driving himself to places within a 50-mile radius where people are expecting him.
“We know the government’s dire warnings and sense of foreboding have been completely unfounded,” Levine said. “He has successfully overcome every obstacle.”
Hinckley has become friendly with a photographer and does laundry “religiously,” said his brother, Scott B. Hinckley. Diane Hinckley Sims agreed that her brother has “some talent” as a singer and guitar player. He volunteers and would like to work for pay at a hospital and as a groundskeeper at a church, his brother said.
Hinckley’s siblings, who live in Dallas, said that if their 89-year-old mother dies or becomes incapacitated, the family can provide for Hinckley’s care for at least two to five years, and much longer if he qualifies for federal or state health insurance or disability payments.
Even then, Levine asked, “when necessary and whatever necessary, the family will supply the resources needed?” “Yes,” said Sims.
Scott Hinckley said he would not oppose his brother moving back to Washington, where he has spent decades: “He likes the D.C. area. It’s a younger crowd. He knows people.”
Prosecutors pointed out that unlike other aging patients with disabilities who have supportive families, Hinckley is an attempted assassin who shot the president and three others.
Kennedy said Hinckley’s treatment plan lacks “structure, supervision and accountability.” The government said he should submit to more frequent weekly phone calls and monthly visits to Washington, weekly local treatment sessions and a pre-approved itinerary, at least initially.
“Who is going to keep track of Mr. Hinckley?” Kennedy asked.
Prosecutors noted past deceptive behavior, including twice in 2011 when Hinckley failed to report going to a nearby bookstore and a fast-food restaurant instead of going to a movie as he had told doctors. One time, a trailing Secret Service agent said Hinckley briefly stood in front of a section that included several books on Reagan and his shooting.
In January, prosecutors said, Hinckley again deviated from plans, going with his photographer friend to an acquaintance’s music recording studio instead of to another photographer’s home. That friend was sick, Levine said.
Hinckley has complied countless other times, Levine said. Scott Hinckley said he and his brother recently went to a movie, but the one they planned to see would keep John Hinckley out too long, and so they went to another.
Within five minutes, his brother tapped him and said, “ ‘We’ve got to get out of here. That lady on the screen is Jodie Foster,’ ” Scott Hinckley testified. “We got up, the Secret Service got up, and we left.”