Jared Lee Loughner pleaded guilty today in the Tucson shooting rampage.
Loughner’s legal team convinced U.S. District Court Judge Larry A. Burns that Loughner is mentally fit to make the plea, meaning the 23-year-old college dropout will avoid the death penalty but will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
He pleaded guilty to 19 counts and is to receive seven life terms, with the possibility of an additional 140 years in prison when he is sentenced. His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 15.
Loughner has schizophrenia, court records show, and officials at a federal prison have involuntarily medicated him with psychotropic drugs for more than a year. A court-appointed psychiatrist testified today that he is competent to enter a plea after several months of medical treatment.
Today’s hearing was the first time the public heard from Loughner in months, though most of his conversation was answering “yes sir,” to the judge and a simple “yes” when asked if he was to plead guilty. He admitted to 19 counts in the mass shooting outside a northwest side Safeway where then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was holding a meet-and-greet with constituents. Giffords was shot in the head and 13 others were wounded and six killed.
Dr. Christina Pietz testified today that Loughner, dressed in khaki prison garb, started taking meds last year and soon understood what he did. He was surprised Giffords survived and cried when he learned of the death of the youngest victim in the rampage, Christina-Taylor Green.
She said Loughner understands courtroom procedures and that while mentally troubled, he is competent to stand trial.
Earlier in the day Giffords said in a statement that she is satisfied with today’s expected plea agreement and she hopes it will allow victims to move ahead with their lives.
In a joint statement released with her husband, Mark Kelly, Giffords said “the pain and loss caused by the events of Jan. 8, 2011, are incalculable.”
“Avoiding a trial will allow us — and we hope the whole Southern Arizona community — to continue with our recovery,” the statement said.
In March 2011, Loughner was indicted on 49 criminal counts. Among the charges he faced were murder of a federal employee, causing the death of participants at an activity provided by the United States, attempted murder of a member of Congress and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.
The Saturday morning shooting shocked the nation. It also brought worldwide attention to Giffords, who survived but resigned from Congress in January to focus on her recovery. Ron Barber, who also was shot, was elected to replace his boss in the House.
Several people at the event jumped into action soon after Loughner opened fire with his Glock.
Roger Salzgeber and Bill D. Badger, tackled Loughner.
Another bystander, Patricia Maisch, grabbed a gun magazine as Loughner tried to reload.
Joe Zamudio, who was out buying cigarettes, heard the gunfire, reached into his coat pocket for the 9-millimeter pistol he carried, clicking the safety off.
Zamudio had his finger on the trigger and seconds to decide what to do as he saw the struggle. He lifted his finger from the trigger and ran toward the struggling men.
A few feet away, Daniel Hernandez Jr., an intern for Giffords, applied pressure to her head wound and propped her up so Giffords wouldn’t choke on her own blood.
Agents who searched Loughner's home found evidence the shooting was premeditated. A YouTube video he posted seemed to indicate Loughner suffered from mental health issues.
An envelope kept inside a safe in Loughner’s home had writing on the outside that read: “I planned ahead,” “My assassination” as well as Giffords’ name and what what appeared to be Loughner's signature, FBI Special Agent Tony M. Taylor said in court documents.
Also found in the safe was a letter from Giffords thanking Loughner for attending an August 2007 "Congress on Your Corner" event at Foothills Mall.
Loughner was suspended from Pima Community College a few months before the shooting after violating the school's code of conduct by disrupting classes and by posting a rambling YouTube video in which he called PCC a “genocide school.”
College memos indicate Loughner chose to withdraw from his classes instead of meeting again to evaluate whether he violated the code.
The college accepted Loughner’s withdrawal and waived further judgment of violations. But if Loughner had wanted to return, he was required to obtain a mental-health clearance. He also was banned from college property and college-related events.
Federal prosecutors convinced Burns to order a competency evaluation for Loughner, saying he apparently had an “irrational obsession” with Giffords that led to the shootings. There was evidence Loughner distrusted the government and judges, believed the CIA and the FBI were “bugging” him, and heard voices, they said.
Burns ruled that Loughner could be forcibly medicated during the restoration-to-competency process, causing Loughner’s attorneys to take the matter up as far as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or firstname.lastname@example.org