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Public Anger Called Hinckley's Key Hurdle in Quest for Limited Freedom

November 19, 2003|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On the top floor of a federal courthouse here, roughly two miles from the hotel where he shot President Reagan 22 years ago, John W. Hinckley Jr. is asking for a modicum of freedom.

If the strides the 48-year-old would-be assassin has made in two decades of psychiatric treatment were the sole standard, he might get his wish for 10 visits with his aging parents -- in the loving embrace of family, away from the penetrating eyes of hospital staff.

But judgment of his mental health is not the only hurdle Hinckley must clear as U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman considers three days of testimony set to wrap up today. The higher bar for Hinckley is the indelible anger of a society that cringes at the thought that a man who tried to kill a president would walk free, even for a day.

"This case has been a political football for a long time," Dr. Robert Keisling, a psychiatrist who testified for Hinckley's release, said during a courtroom break Tuesday. "If it had been any other person, I don't think he would have stayed in as long as he's been in."

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity of shooting Reagan and three others on March 30, 1981, as the president left the Washington Hilton after delivering a speech. His press secretary, James Brady, suffered substantial brain damage.

Hinckley was committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, diagnosed as psychotic and clinically depressed. He was delusional and obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, whose approval he sought when he picked up his 22-caliber that day. In the hospital, his preoccupation moved on to serial killers; he talked of suicide.

But now, after two decades of therapy and a steady regimen of antipsychotic drugs, the mental health experts who have recently examined him -- including government psychiatrists -- agree that he is in "full remission" and has been for years. None believes he is dangerous, and all concur that passes for day outings with his family are part of the natural progression of his therapy.

"The violent acts occurred while he was in a psychotic episode. As far as I can tell, there hasn't been any evidence of psychosis in the last 16 years," Keisling said, adding that he is confident of Hinckley's stability.

Hinckley's doctors characterized him as a compassionate person who cares for the feral cats on the hospital grounds. He works diligently in the hospital library. He never tried to escape. All he suffers from now is narcissistic personality disorder -- a condition that causes people to constantly say wonderful things about themselves -- which observers note could apply to half of Washington.

The odds that Hinckley would relapse during an outing with his parents are "practically zero," Keisling said. Even if that were to happen, the onset would be slow and would surely be spotted by his caretakers. There would be "ample time to perceive it and intervene," the psychiatrist testified.

Prosecutors disagree and are attempting to paint Hinckley as cunning and deceptive. In 1987, they noted, doctors declared Hinckley "completely over his fixation" on Foster. Then 57 photographs of her were found in a search of his room.

Since 1999, Hinckley has been going on weekly outings with staff supervision -- enjoying bowling, movies and bookstores. It was the Secret Service, which tails him regularly, that noticed the books he perused included "Dutch," a biography of Reagan.

His reading interests ultimately caused a previous request for conditional release to be pulled. Now Hinckley's parents, Jo Ann and Jack Hinckley, both in their 70s, are trying again. They moved from Colorado to Virginia to be near him.

The couple has declined interviews, but in brief testimony Tuesday, Jo Ann Hinckley promised she and her husband would watch their son vigilantly. Asked if she believed her son was mentally ill, she said: "No, I don't believe he is. Now I think he has recovered."

But as Dr. Robert Phillips, a forensic psychiatrist retained by the government, put it, Hinckley's mental illness is much like diabetes: The victim always has it, but sometimes the symptoms disappear.

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