Hearing May Grant John Hinckley More Privileges

A hearing opens Wednesday for John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Reagan 30 years ago and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent to a mental institution but is now seeking more privileges that could lead to his living full-time outside the hospital.

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In Washington today, lawyers for the man who shot President Reagan 30 years ago appeared in a federal courtroom. They want a judge to extend John Hinckley's privileges. That would mean allowing him to spend up to 24 days at a time away from the hospital where he's been confined since a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Hinckley's lawyers ultimately hope to win his release.

But NPR's Carrie Johnson reports that the Justice Department is fighting that effort, arguing Hinckley still poses a danger.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A federal marshal escorted John Hinckley into the courtroom and the man who made history on March 30th, 1981, looked almost the same - a little older with gray hair along his temples but with the same round face and wide eyes the cameras captured after he shot President Reagan outside a Washington hotel decades ago.

But his lawyer, Barry William Levine, told the judge that Hinckley is a different person now. His mental illness, Levine said, is in remission. He's taking one milligram of a drug that treats schizophrenia and mania every day. And Levine told the court, quote, there has not been a single instance where there has been a single act of violence, not one since Hinckley has been at the mental institution.

Thomas Zeno is a former prosecutor who fought to keep Hinckley confined for years.

TOM ZENO: The question with Mr. Hinckley is because he has this basic character flaw - or personality flaw, as it is called - of narcissism, can he really be changed and will he be a different person?

JOHNSON: The Justice Department told the judge today the answer to that question is no. Prosecutor Sarah Chasson said Hinckley has lied about what he's been doing during unsupervised visits with his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia. Exhibit A: Hinckley said he wanted to go see the movie "Captain America" last July. But after his mother dropped him off at the movie theater, Secret Service agents watched him go into a Barnes & Noble store, where he looked at books about President Reagan and presidential assassinations.

Then, when the time came for his mother to pick him up, prosecutors said he went back and sat on a bench near the theater and later told everyone he highly recommended the movie. That matters, according to the Justice Department, because it plays into his narcissism; an attitude that Hinckley is going to do whatever he wants and isn't going to tell the truth about it.

Again, Tom Zeno.

ZENO: And from the earliest days, I mean, we learned at the trial how carefully he had deceived his doctors and others about what his true motivations were in going to shoot the president. No one knew it was coming. It's not like he said, oh, I'm going to do it.

JOHNSON: But Hinckley's lawyer, Barry Levine, told the judge the movie fib represented a foolish mistake. We're not here, Levine said, to figure out whether John Hinckley leads a perfect life. Instead, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman needs to decide whether Hinckley still poses a danger to himself and the community. And doctors at the mental institution say the risk is low.

Joe DiGenova was the U.S. attorney in Washington in the late 1980s, when Hinckley first intensified his efforts to leave the hospital, saying he had overcome his obsessions.

JOE DIGENOVA: His fixation was on power and his fixation was on someone to impress Jodie Foster. None of us knows and neither do the psychiatrists whether or not that psychosis will surface one day again, and whoever is president at that time is a potential victim.

JOHNSON: Over the next week, the judge will hear from a series of witnesses - psychiatrists, Secret Service agents and members of John Hinckley's family. A decision is expected sometime next year.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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