Attorneys for the government and Jared Lee Loughner battled before a federal appeals court panel Tuesday over whether forcing antipsychotic drugs on the Tucson shooting defendant is legally justified and likely to restore his mental competency to stand trial on capital charges.
In a complex debate citing the mere handful of similar cases in federal court archives, Assistant U.S. Atty. Christina M. Cabanillas told a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that prison doctors, not judges and lawyers, were in the best position to decide what medications are needed to make Loughner fit for trial.
In July, Loughner's attorneys persuaded another 9th Circuit panel to temporarily halt the forced drugging, arguing that as a pretrial prisoner who had yet to be convicted of any offense, Loughner retained the right to refuse medications he feared could harm or kill him.
But little more than two weeks after doctors at a federal prison mental hospital in Missouri ceased the schizophrenia medication, Loughner began behaving erratically, throwing chairs and threatening suicide, prison authorities told the courts when they resumed the involuntary medication.
Ellis M. Johnston III, representing Loughner, argued that the government had violated the defendant's rights by allowing the prison to draft a treatment plan without court oversight or the involvement of an advocate for Loughner. He also challenged a federal District Court judge's decision to allow Loughner to be sent for a second four-month term at the Missouri facility.
Loughner is being treated with antidepressants to calm him and prevent his being a danger to himself or others, a medical intervention that has been justified in previous cases on safety grounds.
But his attorneys argued before the San Francisco court and in court papers that the drugs being forced on Loughner to treat his schizophrenia were worsening his depression and could interfere with his ability to aid in his defense if he was deemed mentally competent.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in prior competency cases that a defendant has the right to be able to react to the proceedings and engage with his lawyers, not just meet the trial competency standard of knowing right from wrong. Loughner's defenders warned that the drugs could make him appear lethargic or slow his comprehension of the proceedings, violating his right to a fair trial.
Loughner faces 49 felony counts in the Jan. 8 shooting rampage in Tucson, which killed six bystanders at a public event staged by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). Giffords was among 13 others wounded. Prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty.
U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns sent Loughner to the Missouri hospital for evaluation in the spring, which produced a diagnosis of schizophrenia. In May, Burns deemed Loughner incompetent to stand trial but committed him to a four-month term at the facility in an attempt to restore his mental capacity.
All three judges on the 9th Circuit panel — Marsha S. Berzon, Jay S. Bybee and J. Clifford Wallace — struggled Tuesday to pin the attorneys down on the constitutional questions, noting that there was little legal precedent defining the courts' role in restoring a mentally ill defendant to trial competency.
Johnston, Loughner's attorney, asked the court to order an evidentiary hearing at which prison doctors would be asked to explain the grounds for their medication regimen, and the potential side effects of the drugs being used to cure Loughner's schizophrenia and sedate him.
Cabanillas, the prosecutor, insisted that the prison was authorized by Burns' commitment orders to treat Loughner as the medical professionals determined to be appropriate and effective. She said that Loughner's mental health improved markedly under treatment with the antipsychotics, and that prison doctors expected the second course of treatment to make him fully competent to stand trial.
The judges didn't indicate when they would rule. Loughner's appeal of his involuntary commitment and medication was fast-tracked by the court, but its rulings have nonetheless usually taken at least a week or two after arguments.