Hinckley hearing ends; judge to rule later on expanded freedom

John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan and three other men in Washington on March 30, 1981.

Story highlights

  • "You can't afford to go slow," John Hinckley's attorney tells the judge
  • Hinckley is seeking eventual permanent release in the town where his mother lives
  • The government says it has not been shown he would not be a danger to others
  • The judge tells the attorneys not to expect a decision before April or May
A lawyer for presidential assailant John Hinckley Jr. made an impassioned plea to a federal judge Thursday to allow Hinckley longer visits to his elderly mother's home in Virginia.
"We submit that you can't afford to go slow," Barry Levine said. "Mrs. Hinckley, who is now healthy, cannot remain healthy forever." The lawyer said Hinckley needs to spend more time with his 86-year-old mother, Jo Ann, while she's still able to help him integrate into her community in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Levine rejected concerns by government mental health experts that John Hinckley is so isolated he has never made any friends in Williamsburg while there during releases, that he is deceptive and that he has problematic romantic relationships with women.
"Not once during any one of these releases has Mr. Hinckley done anything dangerous or violent. Not once," Levine said at the conclusion of a multiple-day court hearing on his client's future. "Mr. Hinckley is entitled as a matter of constitutional law to be placed in the least restrictive environment consistent with public safety."
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan, press secretary James Brady, Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy, and police officer Thomas Delahanty. For three decades Hinckley has been a patient at St. Elizabeths, a mental hospital in the District of Columbia.
Currently, Hinckley is allowed 10-day visits once a month to his widowed mother's home. His hospital has proposed increasing that to two visits of 17 days followed by six visits of 24 days. After that, St. Elizabeths would like the authority to decide whether Hinckley could be released on "convalescent leave," which would make him a permanent outpatient.
The government opposes the plan.
Prosecutor Nihar Mohanty said the hospital and Hinckley's legal team have "not met the burden" to prove Hinckley won't be a danger to himself or others if he has more freedom. The government wants to keep the visits limited to 10 days at least until there is a more specific plan in place for Hinckley to attend outpatient group, art and music therapy sessions through a Williamsburg mental health provider.
Hinckley already sees a psychiatrist and a case manager during his trips.
One of the biggest controversies raised during 13 days of hearings was that Hinckley did not always follow hospital-approved itineraries for how he would spend three hours of unaccompanied time allotted to him twice during each visit.
Witnesses testified that in July and September of 2011 Hinckley skipped movies he was permitted to attend and then lied about it. In addition, Secret Service agents who were watching Hinckley testified that in July and October last year, Hinckley went to bookstores and looked at shelves of history books, some of which dealt with presidential assassinations.
The St. Elizabeths proposal to expand Hinckley's freedoms would give him more hours of free time and stop requiring that he adhere to itineraries.
The government concedes Hinckley's condition has improved through the years, but does not want him to have unsupervised outings at this time. Mohanty said if the judge decides to allow more free time without specific itineraries, the government would want him to wear an ankle monitor.
Hinckley does carry a cell phone equipped with GPS, but a subpoena would be needed to access his phone records. The government maintains the GPS-equipped phone is not a feasible way to keep track of Hinckley in real time anyway.
Testimony during the proceedings revealed the Secret Service watches Hinckley from time to time while he is in Williamsburg. But lawyers said that from August of 2009 until March of 2011, agents were not doing surveillance while he was going to restaurants, stores, and other activities.
Levine bitterly complained during his closing argument about psychiatrists Raymond Patterson and Robert Phillips, who testified as government witnesses. He said their risk assessments on Hinckley were based on "little more than supercilious swagger."
Their concerns about Hinckley were the same ones they had raised previously through the years, yet Hinckley had never done anything dangerous, Levine said.
Patterson and Phillips voiced concerns about the hospital's proposal to greatly increase Hinckley's freedom.
Patterson, the former director of forensic psychiatry at St. Elizabeths, told the court he opposes allowing any expansion of Hinckley's trips beyond 17 days and said the unaccompanied time should end.
Patterson said he interviewed Hinckley and specifically asked him about lying about going to the movies. He testified Hinckley said the doctor was "nitpicking."
Patterson and Phillips both said Hinckley should have kept to his itineraries to prove he could be trusted.
The doctors also raised concerns about Hinckley's romantic relationships with a series of women he met at St. Elizabeths. Here again Hinckley's truthfulness was called into question with testimony that Hinckley had given different stories to different people about whether he had been engaged to one woman identified only as Miss CB.
It was Hinckley's delusional relationship with actress Jodie Foster that motivated him to shoot President Reagan.
Hinckley sat quietly during the multiple days of testimony, but never testified. Levine would not discuss his client's views about the hearing but he described him as "resilient." Levine said his client had been subjected to "an unfortunate volley of attacks" during the course of the court proceedings.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman told lawyers for both sides not to expect his ruling before April or May. Lawyers said it would not be surprising if Friedman took even more time to weigh all the evidence before making his decision.
In December, Friedman indicated he was uncomfortable with the proposal for St. Elizabeths to ultimately decide if Hinckley could become a permanent outpatient. Instead, the judge said, that authority should rest with him.