Wednesday, December 17, 2003

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman yesterday freed John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot President Reagan, for unsupervised trips from the mental hospital where he has been confined for more than two decades.

Judge Friedman granted the trips over the objections of the U.S. government and the family of the former president.

Hinckley, 48, will be allowed to leave St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast for day trips without an escort. He could take his first trip as early as two weeks from today.

Judge Friedman said he “concludes that it would not be legally sound to deny all aspects of the hospital’s request for conditional, time-limited outings under the supervision of parents.” The evidence, he said, “weighs so heavily in finding that Mr. Hinckley will not be a danger to himself or others.”

The Reagan family disagreed in a statement issued late yesterday.

“Although the judge limited Mr. Hinckley’s travel to the Washington, D.C., area,” the family said, “we continue to fear for the safety of the general public. Our thoughts are with all of Mr. Hinckley’s victims today, especially Jim Brady and his family, as they must continue to live with the tragic consequences of the assassination attempt.”

U.S. Attorney for the District Roscoe C. Howard denounced Judge Friedman’s decision.

“We opposed Hinckley’s release because we remain concerned about Mr. Hinckley’s current dangerousness for the reasons stated in our arguments before the court,” he said.

Mr. Brady, who was President Reagan’s press secretary, was gravely wounded by Hinckley and is disabled. Mrs. Brady opposed Hinckley’s petition for the unsupervised trips. So did the U.S. government, whose lawyers noted that Hinckley, who has written to serial killers while at St. Elizabeths, had boasted that he had “fooled” his doctors on earlier occasions.

Judge Friedman placed several restrictions on Hinckley’s trips. Initially, he will be allowed to leave the hospital for six day trips with his parents on Saturdays or Sundays, to stay within a 50-mile radius of the District. If he returns and does not violate the law, he will be allowed two 32-hour overnight visits, also within a 50-mile radius of the District.

Hinckley will be supervised by his parents, JoAnn and John “Jack” W. Hinckley, and each visit will be evaluated by Hinckley’s treatment team before the next one is granted.

The judge denied a third phase request for overnight visits to the Hinckley home in Williamsburg, Va., which is outside the 50-mile limit.

Hinckley has been at St. Elizabeths since 1982, when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity for wounding Mr. Reagan, Mr. Brady, Metropolitan Police Officer Thomas K. Delahanty and Secret Service Agent Timothy J. McCarthy on March 30, 1981, at the Washington Hilton Hotel on Connecticut Avenue NW. He said he shot the president to impress movie actress Jodie Foster, whom he did not know and had never met.

U.S. attorneys have said Hinckley has a “history of deception and violence.” He has praised notorious criminals, including Adolf Hitler, and he has written to serial killer Ted Bundy and mass murderer Charles Manson.

Secret Service officials would not say whether agents would track Hinckley.

“We continue to review the judge’s orders,” said Secret Service spokesman Thomas Mazur. “The Secret Service does not discuss issues of protective interests and will not do so in this matter.”

Judge Friedman, 59, who was appointed by President Clinton in 1994, placed several conditions on the trips. Hospital staff must prepare a detailed itinerary of each visit and submit it to the court two weeks before each outing. A detailed report must be written after each visit and presented to the court.

Hinckley and his parents must check in with the hospital at least once a day during each outing, and they are ordered not to talk to reporters. Hinckley must continue to take prescribed psychotropic medications, and he was ordered to have no contact with his former fiancee, Leslie DeVeau, a one-time patient he met and dated for 16 years at St. Elizabeths.

Yesterday’s ruling followed a five-day hearing that began last month. Hospital officials testified that staff psychologists, psychiatrists and mental-health specialists say that Hinckley’s psychoses — narcissistic personality disorder and depression — are in remission and that they all approved of conditional releases with his parents.

Two government witnesses, both psychiatrists, also testified that Hinckley is ready for unsupervised visits, as long as appropriate conditions are in place. But U.S. attorneys said Hinckley continued to pose a threat because he is hiding his true mental condition from psychiatrists.

Judge Friedman acknowledged Hinckley’s “deceptive behavior” and said Hinckley continues to be “guarded and deceptive.” But he said Hinckley has shown no signs of violent behavior in the past 20 years, no signs of delusional thinking in the past 15 years and no signs of obsessive conduct for eight years.

He concluded, he said, that the onset of a relapse of Hinckley’s emotional disorders would not occur within a 32-hour visit.

Judge Friedman practiced law as an associate and as a partner with the international law firm White & Case. In the 1980s, he served for two years as an associate independent counsel for the Iran-contra investigation. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from 1970 to 1974 and as an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general from 1974 to 1976.

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