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Feds urge judge: Don't give Hinckley more freedom

John Hinckley, the man who tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981, asked to spend more time outside the Washington mental hospital where he's been treated for three decades. But prosecutors strongly object to his request. NBC's Pete Williams has more.

WASHINGTON -- Urging a judge not to loosen restrictions on out-of-hospital visits by John Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Justice Department lawyers on Wednesday said Hinckley browsed through books about Reagan and presidential assassins at a Virginia bookstore in July.

Hinckley visited a Barnes and Noble store in Williamsburg, Virginia, where his mother lives, but later told his doctors that he went to see a movie, "Captain America," federal prosecutor Sarah Chasson said at the beginning of a court hearing on Hinckley's request to be allowed longer unsupervised visits to Williamsburg, his mother's hometown.

"He has a long history of deceptive and secretive behavior," Chasson said. Secret Service agents watched him browse through the books, she told the court.

Two years ago, a federal judge allowed Hinckley to make 12 visits to his mother's home, each lasting nine nights. Having completed that series of trips, both Hinckley and doctors at a Washington mental hospital are proposing more visits of longer duration.

Such a plan would eventually lead to "the goal of fully transitioning Mr. Hinckley there," said his lawyer, Barry Levine of Washington, DC.

"Lack of candor about attending a movie does not make him dangerous," Levine told federal judge Paul Friedman on Wednesday.

Dr. Tyler Jones, the director of psychiatry at St. Elizabeths Hospital, testified that in July when Hinckley went to the bookstore instead of going to see the movie, he stopped in front of a shelf of books about the McKinley assassination, the Reagan assassination attempt, Reagan speeches and John F. Kennedy.

Jones testified on cross examination from prosecutors that Hinckley looked at but "did not pick up or read" the books about Reagan or presidential assassins. Jones also testified that Hinckley initially lied about seeing the movie.

But he said that when Hinckley's medical treatment team received a Secret Service monitoring report about the incident, they confronted Hinckley about his deception.

Jones testified that Hinckley told the team he "understood that it was a big deal" but asked the team to "cut him some slack."

As a result of Hinckley's deception, his medical team reduced the time he can spend with his mother in Williamsburg for Christmas and he will lose some unaccompanied time there as well.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for attempting to assassinate President Reagan outside a Washington hotel in 1981. Since then, he's been a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital. At the urging of his doctors, Friedman granted Hinckley permission, beginning in 2003, to leave the hospital grounds for short visits. The judge has gradually approved longer visits with less supervision from Hinckley's doctors.

The hospital is now seeking permission for him to make two 17-day visits to his mother's home and six more visits of 24 days each.  If those are successful, the hospital wants the discretion to place him there on convalescent leave permanently.

Hinckley has been volunteering at a mental health hospital in Williamsburg and has obtained a driver's license, though he is under court orders to have a responsible custodian with him while driving.

The Justice Department strongly opposes the request for expanded visits, arguing that his treatment record reveals behavior patterns "that universally have been recognized as risk factors for Hinckley's future violence."

Government lawyers say he has been deceptive with his doctors, not only about his visit to the bookstore but also about his interest in women. He searched the Internet for pictures of his female dentist but falsely claimed she wanted him to see her photos, the Justice Department says, and gave conflicting responses about whether he wanted to marry his current girlfriend.

John Hinckley Jr. in 2003.

While the visits to Williamsburg were intended to aid in his therapy and allow him to gradually adjust to society, "After three years of regular visits to his mother's hometown, Hinckley has failed to show that he has integrated into the community or that he has taken the initiative necessary to complete the task," the Justice Department says.

But, says Hinckley's lawyer, he has completed every one of his court-approved visits "without any adverse occurrence or risk of danger" and is entitled to pursue his "constitutionally guaranteed rights to treatment and to be held in the least restrictive environment consistent with safety."

Hinckley, who is 56, is attending the federal court hearing. His mother was expected to attend later during the proceedings. Hinckley's father died in 2008.

Pete Williams is NBC News’ justice correspondent. Joel Seidman is an NBC News producer.