Jared Lee Loughner at a Tucson book fair in March 2010, left, on MySpace,… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington — Prosecutors moved closer to seeking the death penalty for Jared Lee Loughner, charging him for the first time with the murder of a federal judge and a congressional aide in the shooting rampage earlier this year that also critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Loughner, 22, was indicted by a federal grand jury on the new murder allegations, and federal prosecutors in Phoenix said the case now involved "potential death-penalty charges." Six people were killed and 13 others wounded by gunfire Jan. 8 at Giffords' Congress on Your Corner event in Tucson.
"This was an attack on Congresswoman Giffords, her constituents and her staff," said U.S. Atty. Dennis Burke in Phoenix, announcing the 49-count indictment that his office obtained Thursday and made public Friday. "Lives were extinguished while exercising one of the most precious rights of American citizens: the right to meet freely and openly with their member of Congress."
Burke said that Department of Justice rules required the government "to pursue a deliberate and thorough process" before announcing whether it will seek Loughner's death. He said that process includes consulting with those who were wounded and the families of the dead, and "consideration of all evidence relevant to guilt and punishment."
Loughner earlier was indicted on a series of assault charges, and pleaded not guilty. U.S. District Judge Larry Burns of San Diego, who will be trying the case, has set a hearing for Wednesday on the new indictment.
The new charges state that Loughner, firing a Glock 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, killed U.S. District Judge John M. Roll while he "was engaged in and on account of the performance of his official duties."
Roll, the chief federal judge in Tucson, had gone to Giffords' event at a local strip mall apparently to thank her for her help in a request to ease the heavy caseload among federal judges in Arizona. If prosecutors can prove that Roll was killed while performing his official duties, the charge of "murder of a federal employee" could be enough to win a federal murder conviction and possible death sentence. The other federal employee killed that morning was Gabriel Zimmerman, an aide to the congresswoman who the indictment said was slain "while he was assisting" Giffords. That too could bring a federal death sentence.
Others who died were local residents attending the congressional meet-and-greet: Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, who was born on Sept. 11, 2001 — the day of the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in this country.
Those victims also were included in the federal charges under the theory that Giffords was convening a constituent meeting, and that even though it was held outside a Safeway grocery store, it occurred on extended "federal property." Therefore, they asserted, the shooting was the same as if it had happened inside the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
All of those killed and wounded, Burke said, "were peaceably assembled to speak to their member of Congress."
The additional charges also were made under a federal civil rights law normally used in hate crimes, when victims are attacked while "participating in or enjoying any benefit, service, privilege, program, facility or activity provided or administered by the United States." In the Tucson rampage, the gunfire erupted just at the start of Giffords' event that morning in what the indictment defined as a "federally provided activity."
Giffords is being treated in a hospital in Houston for a gunshot wound to the brain.