Jared Loughner's outburst in court Wednesday caught dozens of reporters off guard and left everyone searching for an accurate quote.
Reporters were packed into a Tucson federal courtroom for the hearing on Loughner's competency to stand trial — some were even seated in the jury box. Others sat in a nearby overflow room watching a video feed of the hearing.
Loughner had been sitting quietly for at least a half hour as a lawyer for news outlets wrangled with federal prosecutors over the possible release of police reports on the Jan. 8 mass shooting. Judge Larry A. Burns was announcing his decision.
Then Loughner quit bobbing quietly in his chair and put his head on the table, with his arm wrapped around it. I wasn't watching him a couple of minutes later when he started talking. I think we were all shocked as he stood up, and we scribbled or typed madly.
What I heard Loughner say was this: "Thank you for the free pill. She died in front of me. You're treasonous!"
After Loughner was taken outside the courtroom and a recess was called, reporters from every sort of outlet, CNN to the Tucson Sentinel website, whispered what they heard to each other.
The main questions surrounded the first sentence. Did Loughner say "Thank you for the free pill," which my colleague Josh Brodesky and I heard, or did he say "Thank you for the freak show," which most other people heard? Or was it "Thank you for the free kill?" as one person standing near Loughner heard? Or "Thank you for the free shot?"
I listened to the various versions and finally went with the majority opinion, "Thank you for the freak show," while also noting the other versions people heard. I wasn't confident enough of what I had heard when he first started speaking to go with "free pill."
Everyone heard the second sentence clearly: "She died in front of me." What he meant, no one knows. But many of us couldn't help but think that he was referring to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whom he had shot point blank in the head and who is recovering from the injury.
The third sentence also caused confusion. Some thought Loughner said the word "changing," as in "You're changing it," or something similar. But I was confident in what I heard: "You're treasonous!" It also is consistent with some of his writings. So I went with that.
The discussion continued after the hearing in the courtroom's corridor. Then we all rushed out to file our stories — the breaking versions, the later versions and the final versions.
Gradually that day, the realization settled into many of us that we'd witnessed something somber and disturbing in the courtroom. No one I talked to thought that the outburst was faked, and no one was 100 percent sure what they heard.
The Associated Press has requested the transcript and recording from the court clerk to find Loughner's exact words. As for me, I'm no longer sure it even matters.