WASHINGTON — The man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan is asking to spend more time outside a Washington mental hospital, but a government lawyer says John Hinckley’s request is premature and that he recently lied to cover up the fact he looked at books on Reagan and presidential assassinations.
A jury found Hinckley was insane when he shot and wounded Reagan outside a Washington hotel in 1981, but doctors say his mental illness has been in remission for years. On Wednesday, a federal judge began hearing arguments that Hinckley should be allowed to visit his mother’s Virginia home for stretches of approximately three weeks and eventually transition to living outside the mental hospital full-time.
“This man is not dangerous. The evidence shows he is not dangerous,” Hinckley’s lawyer, Barry Levine, said at Wednesday’s hearing in Washington.
Government lawyers, however, oppose the plan for visits of 17 and 24 days, saying Hinckley continues to be deceptive and that he “is a man capable of great violence.”
A judge has granted Hinckley, 56, increasing freedom from Washington’s St. Elizabeths Hospital in recent years. Most recently, he has been allowed to visit his mother’s Williamsburg, Va., home for 10-day stretches.
During one of these visits earlier this year, Hinckley visited a Barnes & Noble instead of going to a movie as he was supposed to, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Chasson said during the hearing. Unbeknownst to Hinckley, Secret Service agents watched as he approached the movie theater’s ticket window but didn’t buy a ticket. Then they observed him browsing in the bookstore, looking at books on Reagan and presidential assassinations. Before his mother came to pick him up, he returned to the theater and waited in the lobby as if he had seen the movie, she said.
Hinckley later lied to hospital staff and recommended the movie he was supposed to see, “Captain America,” Chasson said. It wasn’t the only time he has lied about his whereabouts, Chasson said.
Hinckley’s lawyer acknowledged his client had lied but said that the episode doesn’t make his client dangerous. Hinckley said he shot Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster. But his diagnosis of major depressive disorder has been in remission for approximately two decades, his lawyer said, and a secondary diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder is reduced. He still takes medication, but in low doses.
Dr. Tyler Jones, director of psychiatry at St. Elizabeths, testified Wednesday that he believes Hinckley “represents a low risk of dangerousness to himself or to others.” Jones also testified about Hinckley’s visit to the bookstore, saying it is his understanding that Hinckley walked by a shelf of books including one on the assassination of President William McKinley, a book about Reagan’s near assassination and a book of Reagan’s speeches, but Jones said they were not books he “picked up or read.”
The hearing before Judge Paul L. Friedman is expected to take several days. Witness lists include Hinckley’s sister and brother as well as his psychiatrist and case manager. Members of the U.S. Secret Service are expected to testify for the government, which has suggested that the plan for expanded release would not give Secret Service agents sufficient ability to monitor Hinckley at certain times.
Reagan eventually recovered from the shooting and went on to serve two terms as president. A secret service agent and police officer who were shot also recovered from their wounds. Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, was shot in the head and permanently disabled. He has since become an advocate for preventing gun violence. Reagan died in 2004 at the age of 93.