Should President Reagan shooter John Hinckley get more freedom?

In court this week, experts are debating whether John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Reagan 30 years ago, should be allowed greater freedom away from the psychiatric hospital where he’s been held ever since.

Ron Edmonds/AP/File
John Hinckley is wrestled to the ground in this March 30, 1981 file photo after he slipped in behind cameramen, fired his weapon between them, hitting President Ronald Reagan, press secretary James Brady, District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy.

In court hearings this week, experts and advocates are debating whether John Hinckley Jr. should be allowed greater freedom away from the psychiatric hospital where he’s been held since he shot former President Ronald Reagan and others 30 years ago.

In recent years, Mr. Hinckley, who was found not guilty of the 1981 attack by reason of insanity, has been allowed supervised time away from St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, including unsupervised visits of up to 10 days with his parents in Williamsburg, Va. He’s also been allowed to have a driver’s license.

Now the hospital wants to allow two visits of 17 days, followed by six visits of 24 days. The hospital also wants the authority to place Hinckley on “convalescent leave” without court approval, which would allow him to live with his 85-year-old mother (his father died three years ago) for an indefinite period – perhaps permanently.

Barry Levine, Hinckley’s lawyer, says there is no evidence that his client is a danger to himself or to others.

"The record is replete with uninterrupted success for over two decades,” he told the Associated Press last week. “There hasn't been a shred of evidence of danger as a result of mental disease. Not a shred.”

Federal authorities strongly disagree, calling Hinckley a man “capable of great violence.”

“Hinckley still is not sufficiently well to alleviate the concern that this violence may be repeated,” United States Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and other Justice Department officials wrote in a court document arguing against allowing Hinckley more unsupervised time away from St. Elizabeths. “Hinckley's mental health is better, but his core diagnoses remain and there is recent evidence of deception toward his treating physicians as well as narcissism, both of which are significant risk factors for future violence.”

One episode in particular troubles federal authorities, reminding them of the obsession Hinckley had with actor Jodie Foster before the 1981 assassination attempt – a violent act Hinckley admitted was an attempt to impress the young Ms. Foster, who had portrayed a child prostitute in “Taxi Driver,” the 1976 film which included a political assassination attempt. At the time of the attack at the Washington Hilton Hotel just blocks from the White House, Foster was a freshman at Yale University.

“Hinckley continues to be deceptive regarding his relationships with and interest in women,” US Attorney Machen writes in the court document. “In June 2009, Hinckley searched the Internet for photographs of his female dentist. When he was caught, Hinckley claimed, falsely, that the dentist had invited him to view her personal photographs.”

“Hinckley's behavior concerning his dentist is concerning on several levels,” according to the Justice Department officials writing in the case. “Not only does this Internet search appear to violate the conditions under which Hinckley is permitted to use the Hospital's computers, but also Hinckley has twice not told the truth about the underlying facts. Moreover, Hinckley's Internet search concerned a woman with whom he appears to have been attempting to establish a relationship.”

At another point, Hinckley feigned a dental emergency, but then declined treatment when he learned that his female dentist was not available that day.

Hinckley’s attorney says the US attorney’s objection to the hospital’s request is based on “shameful fear-mongering without any factual basis.”

Hinckley’s attack just weeks after Mr. Reagan was inaugurated as president had widespread impact. Earlier, he had plotted to attack then-President Jimmy Carter – also in an attempt to impress Ms. Foster. That earlier effort was thwarted when Hinckley was arrested in the Nashville, Tenn., airport for possession of a firearm.

Reagan’s wound nearly ended the new president’s life, and his press secretary, James Brady, was seriously and permanently disabled. A District of Columbia police officer and a Secret Service agent were wounded as well. Reagan’s popularity soared, and the debate over gun control intensified. Protection for the president has intensified since then. But as was seen with the recent shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, attempts on lives of political officials have not ended.

The question now is whether or not the man who nearly killed a US president should be allowed much more freedom. The hearing in federal court, which began Wednesday, is expected to continue into next week.

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