Ron Barber, director for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' district office… (Amanda Lee Myers, Associated…)
Jared Lee Loughner, charged with shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in a January rampage in Tucson, can't be forced to take anti-psychotic drugs until the government shows that the drugs are absolutely necessary and likely to render him competent to stand trial, a federal appeals court has ruled.
In an order made public Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary halt to the involuntary medication of Loughner, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. He is being held at a federal prison hospital in Missouri.
The court asked lawyers for both the defendant and the federal government to make their case by Wednesday evening, hinting that a final decision on the forced medication issue would probably come soon.
The appeals court panel, headed by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, issued the temporary stay at the request of Loughner's defense lawyers, who argued that the government isn't entitled to overrule a prisoner's objection to medication without a court hearing.
U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns ruled last week that Loughner could be forced to take the drugs after an administrative hearing by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons found the 22-year-old suspect to be dangerous.
The 9th Circuit stepped in Friday to order a court hearing on the forced medication issue, as Loughner's defense team argued was required by a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case involving an incompetent defendant refusing drug treatment.
The appeals panel pointed to a case last year in which it deemed involuntary medication "disfavored" and set stringent requirements for its approval. The court said forced medication may occur only under "rare circumstances" and when an important government interest is at stake, when the drugs are likely to restore the defendant to competency and when lesser measures won't accomplish the same objectives.
Loughner faces 49 felony counts from the Jan. 8 shootings outside a strip mall that killed six and injured Giffords and a dozen others.
Neither Loughner's main defense lawyer, Judy Clarke, nor the assistant U.S. attorneys handling the government's case in Tucson returned phone calls seeking details of their arguments.