WASHINGTON - A federal judge heard testimony yesterday asking that John Hinckley Jr., the man who tried to assassinate President Reagan, be permitted to leave the psychiatric hospital where he has been held for 21 years for unsupervised visits with his parents.
"The unanimous opinion of the experts is that he's not dangerous," attorney Barry Levine told U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, arguing that 48-year-old Hinckley's mental illness is largely in remission.
The move is the latest in a series of requests for conditional release filed by Hinckley since he was found not guilty by reason of insanity of shooting Reagan and three others in front of the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981.
While federal prosecutors contend Hinckley is still a danger, a team of doctors at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington believe he is ready to begin unsupervised day visits with his family, perhaps as early as Thanksgiving, with overnight stays to follow if all goes well.
The hearing is expected to last as long as three days. If the so-called limited conditional release is granted, it could be a first step toward full freedom.
The notion of an unchaperoned Hinckley is troubling to many. Before he shot Reagan, he had stalked President Carter as he campaigned in Ohio, expressed admiration for the Nazi Party and held a bizarre fascination for actress Jodie Foster.
The day of the shooting, he left in his hotel room a note addressed to the actress, asking her to consider "this historical deed" a bid to win her love.
Much of yesterday was spent hearing the testimony of Sidney Binks, a neuro-psychologist who has treated Hinckley at St. Elizabeths for several years. Binks said Hinckley has narcissistic personality disorder, which is not dangerous, and the depression and psychosis that drove him to an assassination attempt have been in remission "for more than a decade."
But prosecutor Robert Chapman, pointing to incidents from the 1980s, portrayed Hinckley as deceptive and dangerous, noting an interest in serial killers that prompted him to try to correspond with Charles Manson and Ted Bundy.
Chapman also said Hinckley tried in 1988 to obtain a caricature of Foster from a California merchant, which the hospital was apparently unaware he was seeking.
Once a prolific writer and avid reader, Hinckley now writes little and reads only books about cats, an apparent link to the feral animals he has taken to feeding at the hospital.
Prosecutors suggested the shift was a calculated attempt to fool his doctors. A request for release three years ago was canceled when prosecutors noted he continued to show an interest in violently themed books and music.
But Binks called the new behavior "healthy and adaptive."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.