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Judge to rule on Jared Loughner's mental fitness for trial

The suspect in the shooting of Rep. Gabriel Giffords and 18 others in Tucson has been examined by two mental health specialists. If he is found unfit for trial, he could be held indefinitely.

May 24, 2011|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
  • Jared Lee Loughner, the suspect in the Tuscan shooting rampage that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, has been examined by two mental health specialists. A judge is due to decide whether he's mentally fit to stand trial.
Jared Lee Loughner, the suspect in the Tuscan shooting rampage that wounded… (U.S. Marshals Service )

Reporting from Washington — A federal judge is set to determine this week whether Jared Lee Loughner, the man accused of shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others in Tucson, is mentally competent to stand trial.

Two mental health experts — one for the federal government, another assigned by the judge — have evaluated Loughner and sent sealed reports to the court. Prosecutors and defense attorneys said they did not dispute the findings in the reports and did not wish to question the experts at a hearing Wednesday on Loughner's mental competency, possibly indications that both sides agree he is a troubled young man.

At the hearing in federal court in Tucson, U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns is poised to decide whether Loughner understands the potential death penalty charges against him and is able to properly assist his defense in any upcoming trial.

If Burns rules that Loughner is unfit at this time, he could order him kept in custody with periodic examinations to see whether medication, treatment or rehabilitation might make him able to stand trial in the future.

Burns will have the reports from the two experts to help him make his decision. The government's examination was conducted by Christina Pietz, a staff psychologist at the Bureau of Prisons' Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo.

In federal court, Loughner is charged in a 49-count indictment that includes charges of attempting to assassinate a member of Congress and the murder of a federal judge who happened to be attending the event hosted by Giffords where the shooting erupted. Six people died in the rampage and 13 were wounded.

The defense team has not taken a position on Loughner's sanity and opted not to have its client examined by an expert at this time. So Burns, seeking a second opinion, had Loughner studied by Dr. Matthew Carroll, a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego with extensive experience testifying in court cases.

State officials in Tucson, who said they also wanted to try Loughner, have deferred to the federal government to prosecute him first.

Barbara LaWall, the Pima County attorney, said in an interview that "we're in limbo until the conclusion of the federal case," adding that if a federal trial is put off for months or years, the state will have to wait.

She said that if Loughner was declared unfit and never improved mentally, the federal government theoretically could keep him in custody for as long as the maximum sentence he faced in federal court, which is life.

In similar cases, LaWall said, "a psychiatrist works with the person to try to restore their competency. If that can't be done, and he's unrestorable, then he would be unrestorable for any state charges as well. The federal government could hold him forever."

In that event, she said, there probably could be no federal or state trial.

Even before the Jan. 8 shooting, Loughner had emerged as someone quite disturbed, according to acquaintances and school officials.

He dropped out of high school in 2006 and reportedly began to unravel emotionally when a girlfriend broke off their relationship. He reportedly abused alcohol and drugs, and he was fired from a deli when the manager noticed a deep personality change.

For a while, he volunteered as a dog walker at a local animal shelter, but his superiors said he did not seem to understand his duties. The Army rejected him, saying he was "unqualified" for service. And he was expelled from a Tucson community college after a series of outbursts. In a bizarre video, he taped a nighttime walk around the campus, complaining about the college.

He also posted a series of rambling YouTube videos. And the night before the shootings, he left a phone message for a friend: "Hey man, it's Jared. Me and you had good times. Peace out. Later."

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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