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Hinckley's freedom isn't worth the risk

U.S. DISTRICT Judge Paul L. Friedman has ruled that would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley will have a hearing this fall on his request to secure unsupervised leaves from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, where he has resided since his acquittal by reason of insanity more than 22 years ago.

This is the latest of a number of such attempts since the 1980s to gain more freedom by Mr. Hinckley. His attorneys argue that his mental health has improved over the years he has been incarcerated there and that such leaves would constitute a "critical component" of his treatment.

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The appropriate answer to such psychobabble is the response of former President Ronald Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, in a Newsweek Web Exclusive: "Who cares?"

That's to say that concern regarding Mr. Hinckley's treatment, even if such excursions would have a salutary effect, is a relatively unimportant issue. What's more important is the safety of innocent citizens and the sensitivities of those who love the ex-president and those who care about the permanently injured former Reagan press secretary, James S. Brady, and the other victims and threatened individuals of the 1981 assassination attempt, including actress Jodie Foster.

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The Bradys as a matter of policy do not comment on such Hinckley requests, but Mr. Reagan's family has consistently opposed such unsupervised release, which is the step just prior to permanent release. It's no surprise that Mr. Hinckley's attorneys have tried to keep secret his efforts to gain unsupervised leaves.

Even if the only issue were the safety of citizens, the request should be rejected. Various studies (including a well-known report in a 1988 issue of Science) have shown that psychiatrists are wrong far more often than they are correct in predicting who will be violent.

This is not the first time that Mr. Hinckley has made such attempts to secure freedom. In 1987, he wanted permission to visit his parents unsupervised, but a year earlier he had sought the address of Charles Manson and had actually corresponded with mass murderer Ted Bundy.

In addition, Mr. Hinckley's previous attempts at leaves have elicited information from his psychiatrists that he has had an obsession with violent books (his longtime attorney, Barry Levine, maintained that "books aren't weapons") and that he had 57 pictures of Jodie Foster in his room and maintained an abiding admiration for Adolf Hitler.

The arrogance of judges and psychiatrists who grease the way for unsupervised release and/or permanent release of violent killers and would-be killers - insane and sane - is simply unconscionable.

The following little-publicized admission is made on the Web site of the American Psychiatric Association: "The APA Statement on Prediction of Dangerousness says that 'psychiatrists have no special knowledge or ability with which to predict dangerous behavior. Studies have shown that even with patients in which there is a history of violent acts, predictions of future violence will be wrong for two out of every three patients.' There are just too many variables in the bio-psychosocial nature of mental illnesses."

No one knows if such violent people will be violent when released. The best bet is that they well may be, but an incorrect prediction poses no threat to those who release them back into society.

The late columnist Mike Royko argued sardonically years ago that psychiatrists and judges who effect the early release of violent criminals should be required to have the criminals live with them and their children after release. That would eliminate decision-makers' distance from the consequences of their dangerous social experiments.

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In 1997, U.S. District Judge June L. Green denied unsupervised leaves for Mr. Hinckley, saying that he "has deceived those treating him in ways too numerous to recount" and may still be dangerous. That decision was reaffirmed in 2000 and should be the current outcome as well.

Richard E. Vatz is a professor of communication at Towson University. Lee S. Weinberg, a lawyer, is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.


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