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WASHINGTON � Doctors say the psychosis that once plagued John Hinckley Jr. is in remission and he deserves more freedom. A federal judge, persuaded by that diagnosis, last month granted the would-be presidential assassin more access to the world outside a D.C. mental hospital. Few people would find vindication in such an assessment of the man who tried to murder President Ronald Reagan. But Susan Lerner does. Lerner, a psychologist who treated Hinckley, has been saying for a decade that Hinckley’s most serious mental disorders were under control. “I’m just really happy to see that they’re giving him the next step,” she says. “I think it’s long overdue based on what I knew years ago.” Hinckley has been at St. Elizabeths Hospital since 1982, when a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity in the attempted assassination of Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel in northwest Washington. The hail of bullets seriously wounded Reagan and three others, including press secretary James Brady, who was paralyzed in the attack. Little by little, Hinckley has pushed to regain some freedom. Meanwhile, the government has fought to keep him locked away in the city-run psychiatric facility. Both sides have called on mental health professionals to testify at dozens of courtroom battles over the years, bringing forth an array of conflicting opinions concerning Hinckley’s psychological health. But according to Lerner, who treated Hinckley at St. Elizabeths during the late 1980s and much of the 1990s, his mental health status has been undebatable for years. While Lerner and hospital administrators now agree, that wasn’t always the case. It was a disagreement over Hinckley’s mental health that Lerner claims prompted hospital administrators and the federal government to conspire against her. Lerner claims she was blackmailed, intimidated and harassed by her superiors and federal prosecutors, who wanted her to keep her opinion about Hinckley’s mental health quiet. When she publicly complained about her supervisors’ actions, Lerner says, they moved to fire her. In 2000, Lerner filed suit against five managers of St. Elizabeths as well as the former D.C. Commission of Mental Health Services. After five years of litigation, an $800,000 settlement was reached late last year. The most important element of the agreement, according to Lerner, is that she is finally allowed to publicly discuss her story. She says the city pushed for a nondisclosure clause as part of the settlement, but she refused. “My original impetus for seeking legal recourse was I didn’t want the son of a bitches to get away with it,” she says, adding, “It’s important that this story be told.” It’s a story Lerner recounts angrily, at times with harsh words. The 59-year-old Germantown, Md., woman describes how she still should be working but cannot due to a sharp progression in her multiple sclerosis brought on by stress. Although she was diagnosed with the disease in 1982, Lerner says her condition took an irreversible turn for the worse because of her ordeal at St. Elizabeths. At times, Lerner is confined to a wheelchair, relying on her husband to care for her. Last summer the disease caused temporary blindness; she has since regained her sight. The symptoms come and go at varying degrees but will never disappear. “What they did is unconscionable. They totally altered my life,” says Lerner. “I struggled for a lot of years to get where I was, and they took it away.” When asked to comment on the case, D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti provided a statement saying, “The case has been settled with no admission of liability or wrongdoing on the part of the District of Columbia or the individual employees involved.” But Lerner’s attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld of Bernabei & Katz, says the settlement proves otherwise. “I certainly hope they don’t give that kind of money away to people who they didn’t wrong.” UNPOPULAR DECISIONS Lerner, who has a doctorate in social psychology, began her career at St. Elizabeths in 1985, specializing in treating patients with a criminal past. She worked in the hospital’s John Howard Pavilion, which houses Hinckley and other patients who have committed violent crimes. Lerner began coordinating Hinckley’s care in 1988, a time when the hospital was dealing with a barrage of unfavorable publicity surrounding its most infamous patient. The year before Lerner took over Hinckley’s treatment, the hospital’s review board determined he was improving and recommended he be permitted to spend the day with his parents outside the hospital. Because of the high-profile nature of Hinckley’s case, such a request must be approved by a judge, giving the government an opportunity to weigh in on the matter. Just days after the request was made, the Secret Service, which still monitors the presidential assailant, searched Hinckley’s room and found dozens of photographs of Jodie Foster. It was an obsession with the actor and a desire to impress her that doctors say prompted Hinckley’s assassination attempt. A second, similar incident a few months later fueled even more negative press, calling into question the hospital’s ability to accurately assess Hinckley. This time the hospital recommended Hinckley be allowed to participate in a supervised day trip to the beach. Once again, the Secret Service informed the hospital of alarming information about Hinckley; apparently, he had attempted to obtain a naked caricature of Foster through the mail. As a result, Dr. Raymond Patterson � one of the defendants named in Lerner’s lawsuit and a former administrator at St. Elizabeths � appeared in court and withdrew the request, which Lerner says was an embarrassment to both Patterson and the hospital. After the withdrawal, hospital staff met to discuss Hinckley’s future at the facility and decided he should remain on his current medium-security ward. The incidents didn’t signify a deterioration of his mental status, maintains Lerner, who justifies his actions by saying, “You can be mentally healthy and stupid.” But Patterson disagreed and ordered that Hinckley be moved to the hospital’s maximum-security ward, where he remained for more than a year before being returned to Lerner’s care, this time in a minimum-security setting. Over the next few years, Hinckley was forthcoming about his feelings in therapy, used grounds privileges appropriately and successfully held a job at the hospital, Lerner says. So in 1996, Hinckley’s treatment team, headed by Lerner, unanimously recommended he be granted a conditional release from the hospital once a month to spend time with his family unsupervised in the city. The hospital’s review board rejected the request. But Hinckley’s attorney, Barry Levine of Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky, filed a motion to pursue the matter in court, which meant Lerner likely would be called to testify. That’s when Lerner says her troubles began. She claims two of her supervisors threatened that if she testified on Hinckley’s behalf, the government planned to “haul out” in court information about her son, who was bipolar and suffering from AIDS. “I was being told that if I didn’t conform my opinion to what the United States government and the hospital wanted, private information about my son was going to be exposed,” Lerner says. Specifically, she claims prosecutors planned to discuss an instance in which her son, Scott, distraught over his terminal illness, took an overdose of pills. While having his stomach pumped in the emergency room, Lerner says her son yelled out, “If they don’t find a cure for AIDS, I’m going to kill the president.” His comment prompted a brief Secret Service investigation, which ended with the conclusion that her son posed no threat. Attempts to contact the prosecutors handling the Hinckley case at the time were unsuccessful. Channing Phillips, principal assistant with the U.S. attorney’s oOffice in Washington, declined to discuss the matter, saying, “It would be inappropriate for us to comment, especially since we are, obviously, very involved in the ongoing Hinckley case.” Lerner claims that in addition to threatening her with disclosing private details about her son, the government and her supervisors at St. Elizabeths questioned her objectivity in treating Hinckley, suggesting she only wrote a favorable recommendation because she sympathized with his mother. “I told them I resigned. If they couldn’t trust me with John Hinckley, they couldn’t trust me with any patient,” Lerner says. So Lerner left the hospital and didn’t return to work for four days. During her absence, Lerner talked to her son about what was likely to come out in court if she testified. She left it up to him to decide. Lerner says her son thought about it for several days before telling her to testify. When Lerner returned to work she informed her supervisors she intended to testify and do so truthfully. Ultimately, Levine was able to enter Lerner’s opinion into evidence without calling her to the stand. But it made no difference. At the conclusion of the 1997 hearing, the judge denied Hinckley’s request for conditional release. (A year later, the exact same request was granted.) While Lerner never testified, she says from that point on, she was treated differently at the hospital. She was transferred from job to job, closely monitored by supervisors and received negative performance evaluations. “She was called in and criticized about trivial infractions,” says Dr. Gerald Koocher, now president of the American Psychological Association. Koocher, who helped draft the association’s code of ethics, was prepared to testify on Lerner’s behalf as an expert witness if the case went to trial. GOING PUBLIC Soon after the Hinckley hearing, Lerner received a call from a reporter with The New Yorker magazine. The reporter wanted to interview Lerner about her experience at St. Elizabeths, and she agreed. “Big mistake,” Lerner says. “Not because it shouldn’t have been exposed; it damn well should have been exposed. Big mistake because it changed my life. The article came out and, as they say, the shit hit the fan.” The article, “Strange Love,” mostly focused on a romantic relationship between Hinckley and a fellow patient. But it also revealed Lerner’s claims of threats and harassment by her supervisors. Less than a month after the article was published, in March 1999, Lerner experienced complications due to her M.S. and, for the first time, was denied advanced sick leave. Lerner also was brought up on ethics charges for allegedly violating Hinckley’s privacy by discussing him with a reporter. Lerner argued she didn’t discuss specifics about his case, adding that it was Hinckley’s attorney who suggested the reporter call her in the first place. Finally, Lerner’s supervisor recommended she be fired for failing to accurately record two days of leave in January 1999. At the time, Lerner says, she was in the hospital with her son, who was in a coma. He died the following month. Lerner took sick leave before a hearing on her proposed termination could be held. One of the defendants, Joseph Henneberry, now director of forensic services at the hospital, stated in a 2002 deposition that Lerner repeatedly abused the hospital’s leave policy and was often “combative” and “abrasive.” When asked by her lawyers if it was appropriate to recommend firing Lerner for the two days she missed while with her son, he answered, “Yes, if it could be proven that there was deliberate defrauding of the government.” Henneberry, Patterson and the other individuals named in the suit declined to comment for this story. Although the settlement clears the District of any wrongdoing, the city didn’t come out of the suit unscathed. Throughout litigation, Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia lambasted city attorneys for their handling of the case, accusing them of employing delay tactics, which she said were either in “bad faith” or a sign of “total incompetence.” In a 2003 opinion, Kessler stated, “The prejudice in this case is particularly severe because, as defendants are well aware, plaintiff suffers from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disease.” She went on to accuse the city of, at best, a “complete lack of sensitivity to the plaintiff’s grave medical condition” or, at worst, “a purposeful attempt to delay trial and to use the plaintiff’s medical condition against her.” Traci Hughes, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, denies the use of delay tactics. Lerner truly believes the city purposefully delayed litigation while her health deteriorated, but with the settlement finalized, she says she’s ready to put it all behind her. And as Lerner moves on, she hopes Hinckley is given a chance to do the same. “People act as though he’s there for punishment,” and that, she says, should not be the case. Sarah Kelley is a reporter with Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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