Jared Loughner, the suspect in a January massacre that left six dead and 14 wounded in a Tucson shopping center, has been declared mentally unfit to stand trial by a federal judge. The ruling, issued Wednesday afternoon during a hearing in a Tucson courtroom, will send Loughner to a federal mental-health facility for treatment and delay his prosecution indefinitely.
Loughner faced 49 federal charges in the wake of the Jan. 8 shooting, which killed a federal judge, a nine-year-old girl and a staffer for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was gravely injured in the attack.
The decision to declare him mentally incompetent, while unlikely to comfort those seeking justice for the rampage, was not a surprise. A courtroom source told CBS News that at least one of two examining physicians — one hired by the prosecution, and one by the defense– determined Loughner was a paranoid schizophrenic after both spent time with him this spring. Their findings have not officially been made public, but both sides declined to question the other’s findings, leading legal experts to reason that both sides had detected serious mental-health problems. The doctors’ judgment applies to Loughner’s suitability to stand trial, not his mental capacity at the time of the shooting.
Even if one suspected Loughner may have tried to feign illness to manipulate his doctors and skirt prosecution, his YouTube rants and pattern of bizarre behavior before the shooting pointed to a profoundly disturbed psyche. That pattern continued Wednesday. The AP reports:
Loughner, dressed in a khaki prison suit and sporting bushy, reddish sideburns, was removed from the hearing after an outburst and had to watch part of the proceeding on a TV screen in another room. Burns had Loughner escorted from the courtroom after Loughner lowered his head and said what sounded like: “Thank you for the freak show. She died in front of me.” His head was inches from the table in front of him.
Loughner was later brought back into the courtroom, and the judged told him he had a right to watch the hearing. Burns asked Loughner if he wanted to stay in the courtroom and behave or view the proceeding on a screen in another room.
Loughner responded: “I want to watch the TV screen.”
Loughner will remain in a federal treatment facility for up to four months of evaluation and treatment. During that time, mental-health professionals will work to “restore” Loughner’s competency, as the Atlantic explains, with a course of treatment that is likely to include anti-psychotic medication. The defendant’s right to a competency evaluation was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960 case Dusky v. United States. According to the Court, defendants must be able to consult with their attorneys and have a “reasonable degree of rational understanding” of the charges and trial process.
There is precedent for judges reversing rulings of mental incompetency and allowing a criminal prosecution to go forward, but it’s impossible to say if or when that will happen to Loughner. The alleged shooter, 22, also faces charges in state court, but that case will be deferred until after a federal trial wraps up.
After Wednesday’s decision, it looks like that will be a while.