A lawyer for John Hinckley told a federal judge Tuesday that it’s time to grant the thwarted presidential assassin the power to leave a psychiatric hospital and live full time with his elderly mother in Virginia.
“Every witness agrees that he’s ready and every witness agrees that the risk of danger is decidedly low,” lawyer Barry William Levine argued.
Levine said the depression and psychosis that fueled Hinckley’s drive to shoot President Ronald Reagan, press secretary James Brady and two law enforcement officers outside a Washington, D.C., hotel in 1981 is “in full, stable, sustained remission” and has been so for more than 20 years. Since then, Hinckley has performed volunteer work, made new friends and started to compose rock ‘n’ roll music his brother describes as “stuck in the past.”
Hinckley, who turns 60 years old this month, quietly listened to the court proceedings, sometimes drumming his fingers on the table. When the judge said he wasn’t likely to see Hinckley again for a while, he genially replied, “That’s correct.”
The government’s own experts agree it may be time for Hinckley to leave the institution for good. But prosecutors say that should happen only under rigorous supervision to ensure that Hinckley adheres to detailed itineraries — and with his phone and driving privileges monitored.
“We all know that Mr. Hinckley is not any person and he never will be,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen Kennedy said. “Mr. Hinckley’s in a very small class of defendants and at present he is the only one found not guilty by reason of insanity.”
Hinckley already enjoys 17-day visits to his mother’s home in Williamsburg every month. The question for Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman is whether to take the next step and grant him full convalescent leave from St. Elizabeths Hospital.
More than a decade ago, the judge said, he allowed Hinckley short weekend visits with his parents. “I knew 12 years ago when I opened the door a crack … I knew this day would come. How could it not?” the judge said. “That doesn’t make the decision any easier.”
The legal issues are clear. The judge needs to weigh whether it’s more likely than not Hinckley no longer poses a danger to himself or to other people. And under Supreme Court precedent, Hinckley is entitled to the least restrictive conditions consistent with public safety.
Deon Merene, a lawyer for the hospital, formally petitioned the court to release Hinckley. Merene told the judge Tuesday St. Elizabeths “has certified that Mr. Hinckley has recovered his sanity and is not likely to be a danger to himself or others.”
Merene added: “At this point, the focus should be on him regaining his liberty and reducing restrictions, not increasing them.”
That’s not enough for the Justice Department. Prosecutor Kennedy argued that Hinckley’s record contains numerous examples of selfishness, entitlement and a refusal to follow the rules. She said the government wanted Hinckley to succeed in his bid for freedom — but only with intense oversight and a tight schedule. Hinckley’s mother is 89 years old, and in good health, but the government insisted there needs to be a plan for a time when she is no longer available and Hinckley’s emotional response to her death.
“The hospital’s attitude is, we will deal with it when it happens,” Kennedy said. “That, your honor, is not good enough.”
For his part, Hinckley’s lawyer said his record of complying with existing court oversight was nearly spotless, and he accused the prosecution of “fearmongering” by dredging up events from the 1980s, including Hinckley’s alleged stalking of female employees of the hospital and his hiding pictures of actress Jodie Foster, for whom he said he tried to kill Reagan.
Many of the legal filings and expert reports in the case remain under seal. But Friedman pushed both sides to agree on what could be made public, sooner rather than later, citing First Amendment concerns.
The judge gave no timeline for his ruling. But if history is a guide, it could be many months before he issues a final decision.