The John Hinckley Jr. who walked into federal court Wednesday morning is 30 years older than the John Hinckley who attempted to assassinate President Reagan at the Washington Hilton, but he looks about the same.
Same round, pudgy face that makes him look like a pubescent teenager trying to pass as an insurance salesman.
Same shaggy, light brown hair combed forward in Julius Caesar fashion.
Same vacant stare that we saw in one of the few photos taken in 1981 through the window of a car.
The question is: Behind that vacant stare, is Hinckley still capable of collecting guns and stalking a president to gain favor with a movie star, as he did with Reagan and Jodie Foster in March 1981?
For the next week or so, before Judge Paul Friedman in the federal courthouse on Constitution Avenue, lawyers for Hinckley will argue that he’s a changed man, that after 30 years in the care of mental health professionals at St. Elizabeth’s hospital, John Hinckley is no longer a danger to himself or to others. Therefore, he should continue on the path to unsupervised leave.
Attorneys for the government will try to portray Hinckley as a deceptive liar who cannot be trusted with more freedom, that for 30 years he has gamed the system and fooled psychiatrists, and should never be set free.
The two sides previewed their cases in opening statements.
Barry Levine, Hinckley’s lawyer for two decades, kibitzed with Judge Friedman, whom he’s known since they were assistant prosecutors 40 years ago. Then he got down to business.
“Why are we here?” he asked. “To find out if John Hinckley leads a perfect life? To decide if John Hinckley is deceptive? Or to determine if John Hinckley, with all of his foibles, is a danger to himself and others?
“The hospital, we think, will answer these questions,” Levine added, and assured the court that the risk of giving his client more freedom was “decidedly low.”
Assistant US Attorney Sarah Chasson faced Friedman and said Hinckley “has not been a good risk in the past, and he will not be a good risk in the future.”
Then Chasson dropped the bomblet that the government hopes will deter Friedman from loosening Hinckley’s strings. On July 24, when Hinckley was on a scheduled leave with his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia, he told her and his counselors that he was going to see a movie. She dropped him off at the theater. He went to the ticket window but turned away and went instead to a Barnes and Noble bookstore.
Secret Service agents were secretly following him, Chasson said. They saw him walk directly to the history section and peruse books on Reagan and presidential assassinations. He then returned to the theater, where his mother fetched him, and he later told mental health monitors that he had seen Captain America.
“Is this deception new?” Chasson asked. “Of course not.”
When Chasson described the bookstore escapade, as if it were a dastardly act, Hinckley sat with his eyes closed, his chin on his fist. When she accused him of deception, he stroked his bottom lip and arched his right brow. When she said he “squandered his last three years” of partial freedom, he observed his nails.
“He should be granted no further extensions,” Chasson told Friedman.
Hinckley took a sip of water. He arched his brow higher and assumed one of three looks he showed all morning: He was circumspect. Or he sat with his eyes closed. Or he stared off into the distance with a vacant look.
Walking into and out of court, with a US marshal holding his arm, Hinckley looked like a child dressed in a man’s too-big clothes. His gait was a shuffle more than a stride. His only interaction with the marshal was to ask for water. He never spoke with Barry Levine.
With his vacant visage, Hinckley gave no indication of what he was thinking or what he might be capable of doing if he is set on the path to more freedom. But Judge Paul Friedman gave all indications that he will continue on the course he set in 2003: gradually giving Hinckley more time away from St. Elizabeth’s and agreeing with the hospital’s plan for more and more unsupervised leave.
“I’m envisioning a time,” Friedman said, “when John Hinckley is in Williamsburg without his mother. His brother and sister will be in Texas. Who are his contacts? Where’s he living?
“That’s what I’m thinking about,” he added. “There’s no answer. I’m just making that observation.”
Hinckley might be inscrutable, but Judge Friedman’s observation makes it clear that after the lawyers finish sparring and the experts are through testifying, he’s likely to increase Hinckley’s freedom, regardless of the risks.