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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Friday that John Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan 17 years ago, can be granted supervised release by St. Elizabeth's mental hospital without first receiving permission from law enforcement and court officials.
This 2-1 ruling overturns a District Court decision prohibiting furloughs that Hinckley's family has fought for years to win for him.
Today's ruling means that if doctors agree to it, Hinckley can leave the Washington mental hospital for supervised visits with his family and friends.
His doctors have said brief trips would help Hinckley's treatment, but they had been prevented by prosecutors from arranging visits outside the hospital.
"I think what the court is saying is that the decision on whether he should get a visit in the community is one that is within the purview of the hospital, not the courts," said Hinckley's lawyer, Barry W. Levine.
"And the hospital has already made the decision that he should get this community visit," Levine noted.
Levine also predicted Hinckley's doctors will recommend an off-campus visit soon, perhaps as early as this month. The visit would be arranged by hospital staff and approved by a hospital review board, Levine said.
Hinckley was 25 when he opened fire outside a Washington hotel on March 30, 1981. One bullet hit Reagan in his left lung.
Presidential press secretary James Brady was shot in the head but survived.
Also wounded were Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty.
In June 1982, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The verdict shocked the public, who demanded revision of laws governing insanity pleas.
Thirteen months ago, St. Elizabeth Hospital notified the court that it approved a six-hour outing for Hinckley to eat a holiday dinner with his parents and a girlfriend on December 29, 1997, in a private home.
The hospital planned to transport Hinckley in a hospital van, in the custody of two hospital employees, and Hinckley would remain within eyesight of his escorts at all times.
But the U.S. attorney opposed the plan and took the case to U.S. District Court, which ruled that Hinckley was not eligible for conditional release.
In Friday's decision, the Court of Appeals noted that in the 15 months before the Hinckley request, the hospital's recreational therapy branch had taken "Class B" patients -- the class containing Hinckley -- on hundreds of escorted trips to theaters, bowling alleys, amusement parks and other places.
"For the first time, in a case involving perhaps the most notorious patient at the hospital, the government now argues ... that a "B-City" pass requires court approval," the court wrote. "We do not believe it has made its case."
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson wrote that the District Court was correct in concluding that courts could review conditional releases, and noted that the lower court had concluded that Hinckley's "history of deception" made the accuracy of a diagnosis suspect.
She also noted that Hinckley engaged in conduct in 1995 and 1996 "that has disturbing parallels to the conduct leading up to the shooting of President Reagan."
Hinckley was obsessed with actress Jodie Foster at the time of the assassination attempt.
In more recent years, Henderson noted, Hinckley pursued a relationship with a St. Elizabeth's pharmacist even after it became clear that she was not interested.
He made unannounced visits to her office when told not to do so, gathered information about her after-hours personal schedule, recorded love songs and stared at her in a menacing fashion after being told to avoid her.
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