Outings for Hinckley: Wellness vs. Safety

by Mary Leonard, Boston Globe, August 7, 1999: A1.

Within hours of lifesaving surgery to remove the bullet lodged in his lung, President Ronald Reagan scribbled this note to one of his nurses: "What happened to the guy with the gun?" What happened is that John W. Hinckley Jr., found not guilty by reason of insanity for his 1981 attempt to assassinate the president, has gotten well, his psychiatrists say.

Hinckley's psychotic illnesses are in remission, according to his doctors at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where Hinckley was committed a year after shooting Reagan, James Brady, his press secretary, a Secret Service agent, and a police officer outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. Doctors believe the depressed, delusional young man who said he wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster is now healthy enough to embark on supervised outings.

Hinckley, 44, has not taken psychotropic medications since 1992. He lives on a low-security ward and holds a part-time clerical job at the hospital. His parents live nearby, and his fiancee, Leslie deVeau, a former St. Elizabeths patient, revealed in a recent New Yorker interview that the once-violent Hinckley now writes love songs and tenderly calls her "the sunshine of my life."

But others less connected to Hinckley are skeptical about the doctors' diagnosis and note that Hinckley has a long history of deceiving the staff at St. Elizabeths. And they are alarmed that a man who almost killed the president and paralyzed his press secretary now is deemed not dangerous and might someday walk free in the very city where he caused such mayhem.

In about one-third of all cases, schizophrenia can be "cured." But, without medication and ongoing therapy, patients remain vulnerable to the illness's recurring, said Dr. Harold J. Bursztajn, co-Director of Harvard Medical School's Program in Psychiatry and the Law at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. "To send someone out without those things is like asking them to navigate and fly a plane without instruments," Bursztajn said.

The US Justice Department last month let the deadline pass for taking the Hinckley case to the Supreme Court, in essence giving up the fight to bar supervised visits. However, for Hinckley's safety and privacy, the hospital refuses to say whether or when its patient has left the grounds. It will, however, inform the Secret Service of Hinckley's outings. "This will be a very controlled and progressive and carefully analyzed thing," said Walter Smith, special deputy for the District of Columbia's corporation counsel, which represents St. Elizabeths in court. "I don't contemplate you will be running into John Hinckley at the grocery store one day and at the bowling alley the next day."

Representative James Traficant Jr., an Ohio Democrat, thinks that it is only a matter of time. "What is next, Mr. Speaker?" Traficant said in a recent speech on the House floor. "White House tours? Disney World? Hinckley should go to jail," Traficant added. "We should throw away the keys."