WASHINGTON - The man who shot President Ronald Reagan appeared fixated during a visit to a bookstore last year on a bookshelf bearing titles on presidential assassinations and Reagan's presidency, according to testimony at a court hearing Monday.
John Hinckley, who shot Reagan in 1981 to impress actress Jodie Foster, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the assassination attempt. He has been held for the last three decades at a Washington psychiatric hospital, but has been granted increasing freedom in recent years as doctors say his mental illness has been in remission.
An ongoing hearing in Washington's federal court is determining whether Hinckley, 56, can begin visiting his mother in Virginia for stretches of approximately three weeks at a time, with an eventual transition to living outside the mental hospital full-time. The court case has spanned years.
The testimony from two Secret Service agents and a bookstore worker Monday was aimed at supporting the federal government's case that such extended visits are premature and that Hinckley remains deceptive and potentially dangerous to the community.
One agent, Jason Clinkner, said Hinckley appeared "fixated" during an October visit to a Barnes & Noble store in Williamsburg, Virginia, where his mother lives, on a bookshelf of American history books — including titles on Reagan's dispute with striking air traffic controllers and the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.
Clinkner, who was conducting surveillance on Hinckley during one of his periodic visits with his mother, said he could not tell whether any particular book caught Hinckley's attention. But he said He said Hinckley's interest in the books, though a matter of 15 to 20 seconds, gave him "goose bumps" and was alarming given his history.
"When an attempted assassin looks at a book with the cover of a person he tried to kill, it's of great concern," Clinker said.
Hinckley, dressed in a blazer and buttoned-down shirt, sat impassively through the daylong hearing, occasionally whispering to his lawyers.
Government lawyers have argued throughout the hearing that Hinckley is deceptive and dishonest.
On one occasion last July, they say, he visited the bookstore instead of going to a movie as he was supposed to. Secret Service agents watched as he approached the theatre's ticket window, then observed him browsing books on Reagan and presidential assassinations. Before his mother came to pick him up, he returned to the theatre and waited in the lobby as if he had seen the movie. His lawyer, Barry Levine, suggested he was merely trying to stay out of the heat.
Levine cast doubt on the significance of the agents' observations. He noted that the bookcase where Hinckley paused contained books on subjects as varied as Mormonism and the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, that he browsed through books on totally unrelated subjects on other visits to the store and that the merchandise he ultimately bought — books on Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, for instance — were innocuous.
When Clinkner said he had been instructed to check whether Hinckley was wearing a ring and whether he was communicating with people inside the bookstore, Levine mocked the directives as pointless.
An employee of the bookstore, Richard Rolfes, testified that a man he concluded was Hinckley entered the store in the late summer or early fall and asked if there were any new books on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He said the conversation was odd, since most customers asking about the topic are a "little wary" and have a specific book in mind. He said Hinckley did not seem especially interested when he tried to help him.
Hinckley's lawyer has said his diagnosis of major depressive disorder has been in remission for approximately two decades, and a secondary diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder is reduced. He has been granted increasing freedom from a Washington hospital, most recently, being allowed to visit his mother's home south of Washington for 10-day stretches.
Reagan recovered from the shooting and went on to serve two terms as president. A secret service agent and police officer who were shot also recovered from their wounds. Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, was permanently disabled after being shot in the head outside a Washington hotel. He has since become an advocate for preventing gun violence. Reagan died in 2004 at the age of 93.