The man who shot President Ronald Reagan went into a bookstore on multiple occasions last year and paused intently before bookshelves 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 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 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 dangerous and potentially violent.
One agent, Jason Clinkner, said Hinckley appeared “fixated” during an October visit to a Barnes & Noble store in Williamsburg, Va., 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. He said Hinckley's interest in the books, though brief, 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.
Another Secret Service agent described a similar bookstore visit involving Hinckley last year.
Hinckley's lawyer, Barry 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 Sept. 11, 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.
“Does wearing a ring, in your opinion, make him a danger to himself or others?” Levine asked.
“Absolutely not,” the agent replied.
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.