The Day John Hinckley Jr. Walked Into a Bookstore

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The man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan wants more unsupervised release -- but the feds say he gazed at the wrong bookshelf at Barnes & Noble.

John Hinckley-body2.jpg

John Hinckley Jr., left in back seat, is escorted from U.S. District Court in Washington in this April 13, 1987 photo.  AP Images.

A remarkable hearing occurred yesterday in Washington, D.C., over what to do about John Hinckley, Jr., the man who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. At the time of Hinckley's criminal trial, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. For nearly 31 years now has been more or less locked away at a psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth's, in the D.C. area. The hearing, one of many that have taken place over the years, is meant to determine whether Hinckley can extend the length of his unsupervised visits to his mother, who lives in Virginia.

The folks at St. Elizabeth's evidently say yes. The United States emphatically says no. And, in a federal courtroom before U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman, the feds introduced evidence they feel strongly supports their view. During a visit to a Barnes & Noble bookstore last October 16, a federal agent testified, Hinckley became "momentarily fixated" when he stood for "15 to 20 seconds" in front of a particular bookshelf. Here's how The Washington Post reported what the agent said next in court:

On that shelf was a book about the assassination of President McKinley and another about how President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers' strike in August 1981. A photograph of Reagan is on the cover of that book, Collision Course, by Joseph McCartin. "When I saw that," the agent said, "I had an involuntary response of goosebumps."

The agent testified that Hinckley never touched any of the books -- remember the time frame here was 15 to 20 seconds -- and that the most famous would-be assassin in America left the bookstore after purchasing two books. One of the books was about Bob Dylan and the other book was about Elvis Presley. Afterward, Judge Friedman was told by federal agents, John Hinckley went to the movies and saw Moneyball, the baseball movie that has been nominated for so many awards this season.

The five-shelf section of the bookstore, we learned, was titled "World History and New History." Courtesy of Stephanie Lambidakis, my longtime colleague at CBS News who covers the Justice Department, and who attended Monday's hearing, here is a list of some of the books that evidently were on that shelf at the time Hinckley allegedly became "momentarily fixated." The links are to book reviews of the listed titles.

Tension City -- Jim Lehrer's book about presidential debates
The Whites of Their Eyes -- a book about the Tea Party (the old one, not the current one)
Collision Course (see above)
The President and the Assassin -- a book about the McKinley assassination.
Spies in the Contintental Capital -- a book about espionage in the late 18th Century.
American Dreamers -- Michael Kazin's book about why "the left" hasn't been a failure.
Rubble -- a book about how some 9/11 families rebuilt their lives
Betrayal in Dallas -- a book about the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson
The Mormon War -- a book about the plight of Mormons in 1838.
One Nation, Ten Years Later -- another book about 9/11

I'll leave it to the judge and the medical experts to evaluate what the list of these titles means in the context of Hinckley's current mental state and the possibility that he is still capable of violence. What's indisputable, however, is what these titles, shelf-worthy at Barnes & Noble for "World History and New History," say about the bookstore, the business of books, and our particular appetites as readers. The hearing will continue, at least until Wednesday and perhaps beyond.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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