Psychologist: Suspect in Giffords shooting still 'incompetent'

Friday, February 3, 2012 | 10:41 a.m. CST

PHOENIX — A psychologist believes that the suspect in the Tucson, Ariz., shooting rampage that left then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wounded has an improved mental state but remains incompetent to stand trial, a federal judge said in a court filing Thursday.

U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns scheduled a hearing for Monday in San Diego to determine whether Jared Lee Loughner should remain at a federal prison facility in Springfield, where officials have been forcibly medicating him.

Loughner, 23, has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges stemming from the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting that killed six people and injured Giffords and 12 others. Giffords resigned from Congress last month and continues to recover from a gunshot wound to the head.

Loughner has demonstrated bizarre behavior since his arrest. He was removed from a May 25 court hearing when he lowered his head to within inches of the courtroom table then lifted his head and began a loud and angry rant.

Mental health experts have determined Loughner suffers from schizophrenia and are trying to make him fit to stand trial. Loughner has been at the Missouri facility since May 28, and his attorneys have vigorously fought the government's efforts to medicate him with psychotropic drugs.

An appeals court temporarily halted Loughner's forced medication last summer, but the medication resumed once mental health experts at the prison concluded that his condition was deteriorating further.

After a Sept. 28 court hearing, Burns extended Loughner's detention in Missouri by another four months. His current stay is set to end Feb. 8.

Burns said the court received a competency report Jan. 30 from Christina Pietz, who is Loughner's chief psychologist.

"In Dr. Pietz's opinion, the defendant remains incompetent to stand trial, in particular because he lacks an adequate understanding of the nature and consequences of the charges against him," Burns wrote. "Dr. Pietz does, however, believe that the defendant has made measurable progress toward competency and that his mental state will continue to improve."

But Burns added that "the court's inclination is to extend the defendant's commitment by another four months." The judge also said that Loughner shouldn't be transported from Missouri for Monday's hearing.

A call to Loughner's lead attorney, Judy Clarke, for comment on Burns' filing wasn't immediately returned Thursday evening.

If the two sides can't agree to a treatment extension for Loughner, Burns said he would hear any objections and schedule a more substantive evidentiary hearing if needed.

Tucson-based prosecutors said in a filing late Thursday that they had "no additional evidence to offer" on the extension request and asked the court to proceed with adding another 120 days to Loughner's commitment at the Missouri facility.

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