The courtroom was packed.
There were at least seven lawyers on the clock, one federal judge, court clerks and a few U.S. marshals. One of the city’s chief psychiatrists was on the stand all day, and at least a couple of other doctors were on hand, waiting to testify.
All were assembled for a hearing this week on whether John Hinckley, the man who shot President Ronald Reagan and three others in 1981, should be able to spend more time having coffee with friends and tooling around Virginia in his mom’s car.
Now, is it OK for me to use the word “crazy”?
I mean, really.
Where else would a person who tried to assassinate a head of state be able to seek — and get — so much freedom?
He visits his mom in her gated Williamsburg, Va., community on 10-day stints, where he plays guitar and uses his driver’s license to shop and go to the movies. At one point, he even got engaged (and broke up).
This guy has more freedom than I do.
His attorney, Barry Levine, urged U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman to hurry up with the decision-making on the request to let Hinckley spend even more time unsupervised. “The time is now,” Levine said. “Mrs. Hinckley has a birthday next week.”
Don’t want to disappoint Mom, right?
Plus, if Hinckley is ever going to form relationships with others, Levine argued, how is he going to do it when his 86-year-old mother is tagging along on a coffeehouse get-together?
Maybe it’s just me, but Hinckley’s mom is probably less of a date deal-breaker than the fact that the deadpan, brown-suited guy shot the president to impress Jodie Foster.
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1982 trial and went straight to St. Elizabeths Hospital, joining the ranks of other would-be assassins known among the mental health staff there as “the White House cases.”
Washington has to deal with a lot of them. Check out the blog whitehousefencejumpers.com for a good compilation of ill-conceived attempts to take down the president. The latest was just last month. Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez didn’t jump the fence, but police said he got a couple of bullets into the White House. Off to St. E’s he went for a quickie evaluation.
Hinckley, of course, is much scarier than most of these guys. And he has spent the past 30 years at the hospital, taking medication, going to appointments, working on tamping down his depressive disorder, psychotic disorder and the narcissistic personality disorder found in his diagnosis.
His doctors were satisfied that all but the narcissistic disorder are in “full remission,” according to Tyler Jones, head of psychiatry at St. Elizabeths, who testified this week.
These doctors have attended to his care with excruciating precision. In the courtroom, we heard about the milligrams of Risperdal, an antipsychotic he’s taking, and how his doses of Zoloft, an antidepressant, are going. When he’s happy and sad. What makes him depressed, what makes him anxious.
The detail was staggering — and absolutely maddening.
If one-one-hundredth of the time that went into Hinckley’s care and medication was dedicated to the dozen or so mentally ill people sleeping on grates outside the courthouse or in court for various crimes, or in the emergency room on a Friday night, we’d see a whole new world of functioning people. And think about the hundreds of thousands of dollars we’d save in court costs, housing fees, police services and ER bills.
Looks like you’ve got to try to kill a president (and belong to a wealthy family that will fund your court fight) to get that kind of mental health care these days.
“His case really does crystallize that,” said Rosanna Esposito, deputy executive director at the Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia. “We are being so wasteful in terms of human life, waiting until after tragedies to treat people.”
From Hinckley to Seung Hui Cho’s massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech to Jared Loughner’s rampage in Tucson — you peel back that onion just a few layers to see that mental health care was at the root of it all.
In some cases, it might simply be access. Forty-four states and Washington, D.C., have adopted assisted outpatient treatment laws, where someone doesn’t have to be confined to be court-monitored for taking medications.
But with states being squeezed in this economy, “these tragedies occur more and more, especially as we see state hospitals closing,” Esposito said.
Stigma is part of what’s going on here, too. Mental health treatment is still — in too many cases — something to be ashamed about, to avoid understanding, to avoid treating.
Doctors said that when he’s on all his meds, Hinckley does pretty well. Well, except for lying about going to a movie. Instead, he darted inside a bookstore and ogled books about the shooting, including the best-selling “Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan,” by my Washington Post colleague Del Quentin Wilber. The Secret Service caught him doing that.(Yes, add a Secret Service detail to the mounting costs of Hinckley’s mental illness.)
If he goes off his meds — which doctors acknowledged he didn’t always love taking — who knows?
We can ask the same question about thousands of others who don’t have Secret Service agents monitoring their every move and a courtroom of doctors and lawyers parsing their treatment.
Petula Dvorak wrote this for the Washington Post.