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Loughner ruled unfit for trial

The Tucson shooting suspect could end up spending the rest of his life in mental health facilities.

May 26, 2011|Richard A. Serrano

TUCSON — A federal judge ruled Jared Lee Loughner mentally incompetent to stand trial in the Jan. 8 shooting spree that gravely wounded an Arizona congresswoman after two medical experts agreed he suffered from schizophrenia and for several years has been troubled by delusions and hallucinations.

Judge Larry A. Burns sent Loughner back to the federal medical center for prisoners in Springfield, Mo., for treatment and further evaluation, stopping for now any attempt to take him to trial for the shooting that killed six people and injured 13 at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' neighborhood meeting.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 27, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Jared Loughner: An article in the May 26 LATExtra section about a judge's ruling that Tucson shooting suspect Jared Loughner was unfit to stand trial described Dr. Praveen Kambam of UCLA as stating that it was possible, but not definite, that medications could help Loughner. Kambam was speaking about the effects of medication on people with schizophrenia in general, not specifically about Loughner.

Without any change in his condition, Loughner could spend the rest of his life in federal mental health facilities. But if he shows some signs of improvement, his case could go forward.

Two psychiatric examiners made it clear in their reports that any improvement may be far away, if possible at all. They provided the court with 18 hours of videotape in which they attempted to interview him, much of it with Loughner lying in bed, the covers up near his head, answering them with nonsensical statements and often rambling obsessively about treason.

The ruling came after U.S. marshals removed Loughner from the courtroom Wednesday when he suddenly started screaming. His father, Randy Loughner, sat in the second row next to Loughner's mother and cried almost the entire time.

Court staff variously reported him saying "thank you for the free kill" or "free shot," and then, "she died in front of me" and "you're treasonous." A government source said Loughner was convinced he killed Giffords, and that "she died in front of me" apparently refers to that belief.

When asked later whether he could behave in court, Loughner told Burns that he would prefer to watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit television screen in a courtroom anteroom, where he remained for the rest of the hearing.

Earlier, he sat at his attorneys' defense table, rocking in his chair, bobbing his head, and at one point resting his forehead on the dark tabletop. He was surrounded by four marshals, who expected there would be some kind of outburst in the crowded courtroom.

And unlike the previous mug shot image of the 22-year-old man with wild eyes and bald head, on Wednesday Loughner appeared in court with his eyes closed, a heavy and disheveled mop of dark brown hair, long sideburns and a wisp of a goatee. He wore a prison khaki jumper, blue loafers and manacles on his wrists.

His appearance and outburst only reinforced the findings by the two mental health experts that Loughner not only does not understand the proceedings and the legal system, but also was in no condition to assist in his defense.

"His mental illness at this point is a significant barrier," Burns said.

Christina Pietz, a staff psychologist at the Springfield prison, wrote a 52-page report for the prosecution after seeing him daily for a month and interviewing him for over 12 hours. She concluded he suffered from "major medical illness, schizophrenia," and that he also had "disorganized thinking and delusions" and was "unable to provide coherent or rational answers" about the legal system.

She said he did not understand the role of a judge or a jury and harbored an "irrational mistrust" of the process.

Dr. Matthew Carroll, a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego with extensive experience testifying in court cases, submitted a 43-page report after interviewing Loughner for seven hours. He found him to be a "schizophrenic, paranoid type," and added that for the "last two or three years, he has had a history of suffering from mental illness."

Carroll, who was retained by the judge, also agreed that Loughner did not have a grasp of how the court process works, did not understand the role of witnesses and yet feared he "can't get a fair trial due to a conspiracy."

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, for any attorney to try to reason with him," the judge said in summarizing Carroll's report.

Burns also ruled that there was no hint that Loughner was trying to fake his condition in order to avoid a potential sentence of death at trial.

"He scoffs at the idea" he is mentally ill, Burns said. "He denies it."

"The defendant is not masquerading," the judge added. "I'm convinced of that today."

The ruling does not mean that Loughner has been declared insane.

"A lot of people are confusing this with the insanity defense," said Dr. Praveen Kambam, a forensic psychiatrist at UCLA. "Being incompetent to stand trial is a fairness thing. You're making sure your constitutional rights are protected. Right now, in this moment, this person doesn't have the competency to stand trial."

He said it was possible but not definite that medications could help Loughner.

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