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Judge resists giving doctors authority to free Hinckley

By Bill Mears, CNN
December 8, 2011 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
John Hinckley, seen here in 2003, has been allowed brief furloughs from a Washington mental hospital to visit his mother.
John Hinckley, seen here in 2003, has been allowed brief furloughs from a Washington mental hospital to visit his mother.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Doctors propose giving John Hinckley longer leaves from mental hospital
  • Judge says he should decide about Hinckley, who shot President Reagan in 1981
  • Hinckley has been allowed to take 10-day leaves to visit his elderly mother
  • Hospital proposes upping that and if no problems, letting him live as outpatient

Washington (CNN) -- A federal judge raised "serious questions" Thursday over giving doctors ultimate authority determining whether presidential assailant John Hinckley can live essentially as an outpatient, saying he wants to decide the matter himself.

Judge Paul Friedman made his comments on Day Five of a hearing to determine if the man who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 has progressed enough in his treatment to eventually live full time with his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia. Hinckley currently is in a government mental hospital in Washington. Doctors at St. Elizabeth's have proposed a longer outplacement arrangement, from the current 10-day leave to 24 days, to which the government has objected.

If those extended visits are without problems, the hospital staff wants the authority to seek "convalescent leave" where Hinckley would essentially be a full-time outpatient. The defense has suggested such an arrangement be made soon, since Hinckley's mother is 86, and the family wants his future finalized as soon as possible. That suggestion met with measured skepticism from the judge.

"I've got responsibility here under the law" to sign off on visits outside St. Elizabeth's, said Friedman. "I'm extremely reluctant to give up that responsibility until I see how that next phase goes."

The hospital is required to regularly send reports to the judge, outlining the movements and activities of Hinckley when he is in Williamsburg. Any changes in Hinckley's out-of-hospital visits currently have to be approved by Friedman, after public hearings that can take months to arrange, and last a week or more. A key issue is whether the hospital staff should have that unilateral discretionary authority over the visits, which is the case for many mental patients.

Friedman was also worried whether visits lasting more than three weeks would delay or impact detailed, timely reports from the hospital.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shootings of the president, press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and police officer Thomas Delahanty. All survived the gun attacks, but Brady was left permanently disabled.

The legal team from Hinckley and the hospital wrapped their initial case Thursday. The federal government will begin its presentation next week. Hinckely's lawyers will then have a final rebuttal before closing arguments in this evidentiary hearing.

Hinckley's sister and brother have testified they supported longer visits with their elderly mother. Testifying Thursday was Kevin Shamblee, a clinical administrator at St. Elizabeth's and a member of the patient's treatment team.

Shamblee admitted Hinckley had lied to him about movies he claimed to have watched at a theater in Williamsburg, and that Hinckley had used "questionable judgment" in his relations with some female staff and patients at the facility.

But Shamblee also said Hinckley's visits to Williamsburg have helped his overall mental state and that he has been given the freedom to volunteer at a nearby state mental hospital as well as to dine out and go to stores, all without major incident. "In that regard, I see it as a success," said Shamblee.

Government attorney Sarah Chasson told the court that longer time away from the hospital has not made Hinckley more sociable, saying he has no friends or nonfamily relationships in Williamsburg. She questioned whether granting eight hours of unsupervised free time in the community -- as the hospital has proposed -- would make a difference. "What's he going to do with the eight hours when he hasn't done anything with the three hours" he currently has, asked Chasson. The Justice Department and Secret Service say Hinckley remains deceptive in his dealings with counselors and doctors and remains a danger to the community.

It was unclear whether Hinckley himself would testify, as his legal team prepared to wrap up their initial presentation.

The case is U.S. v. Hinckley (cr81-306).

CNN's Carol Cratty contributed to this report.

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