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Loughner pleads guilty in Giffords shooting; no death penalty sought

4:00 PM, Aug 7, 2012   |    comments
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Jared Lee Loughner

TUCSON -- The final chapter of the deadly Tucson shooting saga played out in a federal courtroom Tuesday when suspect Jared Loughner was found competent by a judge to stand trial and immediately pleaded guilty to 19 charges, including the wounding of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Prosecutors agreed in exchange not to seek the death penalty.

Loughner pleaded guilty to 19 total charges, with 30 others dismissed.

Loughner's plea included guilty pleas for the murders of U.S. District Judge John Roll and Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman. It also included guilty pleas for the attempted assassination of Giffords and the attempted murders of Giffords employees Pam Simon and Ron Barber. Barber succeeded Giffords as U.S. representative from Tucson.

All are federal employees.

He also pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of the others killed at Giffords' constituent event at a grocery store just outside of Tucson. Because it was an official congressional event, it was a federally protected activity.

The maximum sentence for the crimes would be mandatory life in prison without eligibility for parole.

In light of all the evidence and professional observations of experts, the court U.S. District Judge Larry Burns found Loughner mentally competent shortly after noon Tuesday.

"My personal observations of him leave no questions in my mind that Loughner knows what's going on today," Burns said.

The shooting rampage at a Giffords event last year left six dead and 13 wounded.

Burns' competency ruling came after testimony from Dr. Christina Pietz, Loughner's forensic psychologist, who said she believed Loughner was competent to stand trial after spending months in a prison psychiatric hospital in Missouri.

Loughner, dressed in a khaki uniform, sat quietly in the U.S. District Court courtroom as Pietz described her review of 2,000 pages of Loughner's journal, computer entries and other material. From that, she concluded that he has shown signs of depression since 2006 and may have developed symptoms of schizophrenia in his junior year of high school.

Between 2008-2010, Loughner's parents and friends became concerned that he would commit suicide because of his depression, and started a suicide watch. In one video he filmed of himself, he said he was so depressed he wanted to assassinate someone.

When Pietz diagnosed Loughner with schizophrenia after the shootings in 2011, he was described as being "disappointed, upset." He told her he wished he took depression medication, Pietz said. Pietz said she believed medication had subsequently helped Loughner because he began making comments about feeling badly about what he had done. He also showed some understanding of his actions, saying he wanted to be executed and crying about a child's death in the event.

Pietz also said Loughner expressed shock that Giffords survived, telling her he was disappointed that he failed to kill the lawmaker. He said of himself, "Jared is a failure."

Since being imprisoned, Loughner wanted a job, which Pietz said was a sign for competency. He works two prison jobs, one rolling towels for inmates.

Pietz said she believed Loughner to have a factual, rational understanding the role of jury, a judge, prosecutors, judicial proceedings. During inmate group competency therapy, Loughner was asked what he would do if he left prison. He replied, "I'm never gonna get out."

Pietz also emphasized that Loughner had never been forcibly medicated -- she called it passive involuntary medication, because he had never refused it.

The plea agreement that is anticipated to emerge from today's hearing developed after a prolonged legal battle over Loughner's hospitalization and medication.

News spread quickly Monday, resulting a gaggle of media descending on the Tucson courthouse to cover the event. The courtroom was packed, and roughly 80 people watched the hearing from an overflow room.

Early Tuesday, Mark Kelly, husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in last year's shootings, said in a statement that he and Giffords are satisfied with the proposed plea agreement.

"The pain and loss caused by the events of Jan. 8, 2011, are incalculable," said Kelly, who will not be attending today's hearing with his wife. He said he and his wife have been in touch with the U.S. Attorney's Office throughout the legal process. "Avoiding a trial will allow us -- and we hope the whole Southern Arizona community -- to continue with our recovery and moved forward with our lives."

Giffords and Kelly have been out of the country, hosting a long-planned cruise of the Mediterranean that docked in Rome on Monday. They have not yet returned home to Houston, where Giffords has been undergoing outpatient therapy for her brain injury.

In July, Giffords and Kelly were photographed together at a summit of the French Alps. Kelly was visiting a nearby mountain research station with other astronauts to commemorate their shuttle missions.

Before today's hearing began, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wallace Kleindienst said if Burns finds Loughner competent and accepts the plea deal, then Loughner will be sent back to Missouri.

Kleindienst said that Loughner will spend three or four days in Tucson, however, to visit with his parents. Sentencing will probably not be until October, he said.

Questions about Loughner's sanity emerged immediately after the Jan. 8, 2011, shootings outside a supermarket near Tucson where Giffords was holding an event for her constituents. Six people died, including a federal judge, a congressional staffer and a 9-year-old girl. Thirteen others were wounded, including Giffords.

Loughner was indicted on 49 counts, including several which could be punishable by death, if Loughner were convicted.

Burns ordered Loughner to undergo psychological evaluation in early March 2011 at the request of the prosecution, and then sent him to the federal prison hospital in Missouri.

He was back in court in Tucson at the end of May for his first competency hearing, but he had to be removed from the courtroom after going into a rant in which he indicated that he believed he had killed Giffords.

"Thank you for the free kill. She died in front of me. Your cheesiness," he said.

Loughner was found incompetent to stand trial and was sent back to Missouri to undergo restoration to competency. Competency is defined as being able to understand the court proceedings and assist his attorneys with his defense. Court documents said he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

But he refused to cooperate with restoration efforts, and after prison officials determined he was a danger to himself and others, they forced him to take medication. Loughner's attorney, Judy Clarke, objected on numerous grounds, saying that the government was trying to make an end-run around the law by using the dangerousness argument to make him take the same drugs used in restoration of schizophrenics.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals briefly took Clarke's side and stopped the forcible medication while it reviewed the issue. But after another incident at the hospital in July 2011, prison officials decided to force the medication again, and this time the 9th Circuit upheld the medication.

Loughner was calm at his next Tucson court appearance in September 2011, but Burns found him still incompetent and sent him back to Missouri for four more months.

Clarke continued her appeals. According to Clarke's filings in the 9th Circuit, by March 2012, Loughner was on a drug regimen that included anti-psychotics, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants and a drug to counteract symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease.

The restoration ended in late May. Loughner was scheduled to appear in Tucson on June 27. If Loughner remained incompetent, the government would eventually have to drop charges against him and initiate a civil commitment to a mental institution.

But when Clarke and prosecutors filed a joint motion to postpone the heaing until Aug. 6, it signaled that they might be working out a deal.

No one would talk about it, however. The news leaked out Saturday night that Loughner might be found competent and enter into a plea agreement.

On Monday, in an order written by Burns, it was learned that Clarke had requested the change-of-plea hearing.

Clarke could have attempted an insanity defense, but history shows that juries are leery of not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdicts. Loughner could easily have been found guilty and sentenced to death.

The deal apparently made sense to the prosecution as well. If they went to trial, they ran the risk that Loughner's delicate mental state could deteriorate. There would be a chance he'd be found not guilty by reason of insanity. There would be a greater chance that any conviction would be vigorously appealed, and Loughner might not have been competent at the time of his execution.

(The Arizona Republic/KPNX Phoenix)

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