Tucson shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner has made “measurable progress” toward recovering mental competency to stand trial in the deadly rampage, a federal judge said Monday in ordering another four-month commitment at a prison mental hospital.
U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns said there was “reason for optimism” that Loughner could be brought to trial in the foreseeable future on the 49 felony counts stemming from the Jan. 8, 2011, shootings that left six people dead and 13 wounded, including former Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Burns cited a psychiatrist’s report from the mental hospital in Missouri where Loughner has been forcibly treated with anti-psychotic drugs for almost a year. The report says Loughner, 23, has become more cooperative with prison and hospital staff and has been taking part in group therapy sessions.
The judge referred to Loughner’s unruly and bizarre behavior at earlier court appearances before him in Tucson in observing that “there was no way in my judgment then that he could have meaningfully participated in any kind of group therapy.”
Attorneys for the government asked Burns to give them access to the prison psychiatrist’s notes from discussions with Loughner. Burns said he was prepared to grant the request after reviewing the reports to delete any information that might be subject to Loughner’s attorney-client privilege.
Excerpts of the mental health reports read by the judge painted a picture of a much-improved defendant, who was deemed incompetent to stand trial in May.
Loughner has undergone two four-month commitments for treatment, during which his attorneys have waged a legal battle to spare him from being medicated against his will with drugs they say could harm or kill him.
Loughner could face the death penalty if convicted.
Burns indicated that the new four-month commitment would possibly be the last.
While hailing the progress made over the last four months, Burns said the prison doctors believe “he is not there yet” in terms of being capable of assisting in his own defense. The judge said the court might have to "try something else" if Loughner isn't ready for trial by the June 7 end of his latest commitment.
Neither Loughner’s lead attorney, Judy Clarke, nor Assistant U.S. Atty. Wallace Kleindienst, appearing for the government via videoconference from Tucson, made new arguments to Burns for or against his stated inclination to give the government four more months to work on Loughner’s mental capacity.
-- Carol J. Williams in San Diego
Photo: Tucson shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner in January 2011. Credit: Pima County Sheriff's Department