Once Loughner is mentally fit for trial, likely to plead insanity
Attorneys for 23-year-old suspect in Tucson shooting have no other choice to spare him from death sentence, legal experts say
The judge extended Loughner's four-month stay at a Missouri prison facility by another four months so doctors can continue to pursue his readiness for trial and assist his lawyers. In that eventuality, Loughner, 23, will most likely invoke his mental illness as a legal defense because the Jan. 8 shooting outside a Tucson grocery store that killed six and injured 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was captured on surveillance video and witnessed by dozens of people.
"I don't see what other defense he's got," said Stephen J. Morse, a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Morse, who has followed Loughner's criminal case. Morse believes Loughner will be made mentally fit for trial.
Loughner appeared in court on Wednesday for the first time since May, when in an angry outburst he shouted "Thank you for the free kill!" This time, he sat expressionless and quiet throughout the seven-hour hearing, having been forcibly medicated with psychotropic drugs for the last 60 days.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns concluded that Loughner can probably be made psychologically ready for trial, begging a broader question: What happens next?If the judge finds four months from now that Loughner is ready to stand trial, the case will resume.
If Loughner is found to still be mentally unfit, Burns could give him another four months at the prison facility in Springfield, Mo., though the judge said he'd have to see more progress by Loughner before he grants another extension.
If Burns finds there's no likelihood of Loughner being made mentally ready for trial, he can dismiss the charges under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that stipulates an individual can't be indefinitely held for trial.
If the charges are dismissed, state and federal authorities would likely petition to have Loughner civilly committed and seek repeated extensions of his commitment until his death.
Loughner's lawyers haven't said whether they intend to present an insanity defense, but noted in court filings that his mental condition will likely be a central issue at trial. A call to his lead attorney, Judy Clarke, wasn't immediately returned Friday afternoon.
Prosecutors haven't said whether they will seek the death penalty if Loughner goes to trial. But, if so, his attorneys are expected to use his mental condition to save him from a death sentence.
Loughner has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges stemming from the shootings, which killed federal judge John Roll, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green and Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, and three others.