"Because [Jared Lee] Loughner has not been convicted of a crime, he… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Tucson shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner can refuse anti-psychotic medication until his appeal of the treatment prescribed by prison doctors is decided, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
Loughner, who has been deemed mentally ill and incompetent to stand trial in the Jan. 8 shooting rampage that killed six and injured 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is in custody at a federal prison medical center in Missouri.
Doctors there began treating him against his will with psychotropic drugs a month ago, prompting his lawyers to ask the courts to halt the forced medication that they said could irreparably harm or even kill the 22-year-old suspect.
The government has legitimate interests in healing Loughner so he can be tried on the dozens of federal criminal charges he faces in the Tucson rampage, but his right to be free from unwanted drugs trumps those considerations, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said in extending its July 1 temporary order to stop the forced medication.
"Because Loughner has not been convicted of a crime, he is presumptively innocent and is therefore entitled to greater constitutional rights than a convicted inmate," the appeals court panel headed by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said.
The panel said its injunction against involuntary treatment with psychotropic drugs would remain in force until Loughner's appeal of the prison medical team's treatment plan runs its legal course. The next hearing in that appeal was set for Aug. 29 in San Francisco.
Loughner's attorneys had argued that prison officials sought to medicate him against his will to render him competent to stand trial, something courts have allowed only under restrictive circumstances and when the medical benefits of the treatment outweighed the risks of violating a pretrial prisoner's constitutional rights.
In its written and oral arguments to the appeals panel last week, the defense team headed by San Diego lawyer Judy Clarke said the government was claiming Loughner needed to be drugged to prevent him from being a danger to himself or others when in fact the aim was to get him into condition to stand trial.
U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns ruled May 25 that Loughner was incompetent to stand trial after reviewing mental health reports from prison doctors. Loughner has been in detention at the Springfield, Mo., mental hospital since Burns' decision. The judge ordered that Loughner be treated with the aim of rendering him able to eventually participate in his own defense.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons conducted an administrative hearing last month at which it decided Loughner needed the antipsychotic drugs to control his potential for danger. U.S. Supreme Court rulings have upheld prison authorities' rights to forcibly medicate a dangerous prisoner, but overriding of the detainee's will is allowed only to achieve security objectives.
The 9th Circuit panel observed that prison authorities had managed to keep Loughner in custody for more than six months without injury to anyone interacting with him and that "the record shows that Loughner is not a danger to himself."
In their brief to the appeals court, government lawyers cited several outbursts by Loughner as evidence that he was dangerous: He once spit at his attorney, shouted profanity at prison staff, threw a chair in his cell against a wall in his cell several times and once tossed a sodden roll of toilet paper at a prison doctor.
The 9th Circuit panel said its ruling didn't preclude "other measures to maintain the safety of prison personnel, other inmates and Loughner himself, including forced administration of tranquilizers."
Kozinski, who was named to the court by President Reagan, was joined in the ruling by two appointees of President Clinton: Judges Kim McLane Wardlaw and Richard A. Paez.