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Shooting Rampage Suspect Loughner Ruled Mentally Unfit to Stand Trial

May 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A federal judge has ruled that Jared Loughner, accused in the Tucson shooting rampage that killed six people and wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others, is mentally unfit to stand trial. Judy Woodruff discusses what the ruling means for Loughner, the victims and their families with Loyala Law School's Laurie Levenson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: According to a federal judge, the man accused in the shooting massacre in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this year is not mentally fit to stand trial. It will be at least four months before Jared Loughner, accused in the Tucson, Ariz., shooting rampage, sees the inside of a courtroom again.

The Jan. 8 attack killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others. But, on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns ruled Loughner is mentally incompetent to stand trial.

The judge ordered Loughner to a federal facility in Springfield, Mo. There, psychiatrists will attempt to treat the 22-year-old suspect, so that he can understand the case against him.

One of the shooting victims, Eric Fuller, was in court, and agreed with the decision.

ERIC FULLER, shooting victim: The mere appearance of him is very disheveled and he was very disorganized. You don’t have to be a professional psychiatrist to know that the boy is disturbed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The judge ruled after medical experts reported that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia and delusions. They said his mental health had been in decline for two or three years. The finding matched firsthand accounts from acquaintances who knew Loughner, and spoke just after the shootings.

BEN MCGAHEE, former teacher of Jared Lee Loughner: Jared wasn’t your normal student. He was just mentally unstable.

RICK DAHLSTROM, former neighbor of Jared Lee Loughner: I would see Jared walking down the street, you know, head down, but, no, never — never any words, never any gestures, nothing, not a single one. I would call him depressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, Loughner’s mental state was on display Wednesday, as he grew visibly agitated and interrupted the hearing with screams and a series of outbursts. At one point, he said something that sounded like, “She died in front of me,” a possible reference to Giffords that stunned those in the courtroom.

DAVID BODNEY, attorney: Surprised. It was a first. Unexpected. It is most rare for anyone to interrupt a federal judge in court, particularly when he is reading a ruling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Federal marshals took Loughner out of the courtroom, and he opted to watch the rest of the proceedings on television. A hearing to revisit his mental capacity is set for September.

And now, for a closer look at yesterday’s decision and what it could mean going forward, we turn to Laurie Levenson. She’s professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor.

Laurie Levenson, thank you for being with us again.


LAURIE LEVENSON, Loyola Law School: My pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … what does it mean that a — that a defendant is found incompetent to stand trial? And explain the difference between that and the insanity defense.

LAURIE LEVENSON: Well, incompetence is very different from insanity.

Insanity is looking at his mental state at the time of the crime. But incompetence really means, does he understand the proceedings at the time of trial, and can he participate and help in his defense?

And we have had two psychologists here for the prosecution and the defense say, you know what? He doesn’t have that mental capacity to even understand the proceedings at this point. Maybe he will in the future, but he’s not ready now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What has to happen for this finding to — to take place? Are there — are there a set of criteria that apply in the federal courts?

LAURIE LEVENSON: Well, the judge will look at the case law. And there has been a lot of case law in this area.

The judge has to determine, basically — and it’s often on the experts’ testimony — whether Jared Loughner really understands what is going on in the courtroom, and, even if he does, whether he can engage and participate and help his defense lawyer.

Otherwise, a trial would just be a spectacle where, as we heard, he would be screaming out. It wouldn’t really be a presentation of the evidence. And it’s important in a trial that he be able to exercise his rights. And if he’s incompetent, he can’t even do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — so, does this give the mental health professionals an extraordinary amount of influence in the process?

LAURIE LEVENSON: Yes, this is one of those intersections between the law and the mental health experts.

And the mental health experts have a tremendous impact on the judge’s decision, because they will go through the history of Loughner, his behavior day-by-day, and give the judge an idea of what’s really going on in Loughner’s head.

The judge is a smart man, but he doesn’t have the training in this area. Ultimately, however, the decision of competence is not the doctors’. It is the judge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Laurie Levenson, what are the next steps, then, for Jared Loughner? They said he’s going to be treated in Missouri. What happens there?

LAURIE LEVENSON: Well, he will go back to Missouri and be treated at Springfield at the prison hospital there.

And they will try to literally make him competent to come back and stand trial. A big issue is whether he will be medicated forcibly if he doesn’t want to be. And there’s some case law that says, in a case where you have these serious types of charges, the judge could order that.

But that hasn’t been determined yet, what kind of treatment, whether medication could be used to treat him and make him competent. If they can do so, he will come back and stand trial. And if they can’t, actually, the criminal case gets dismissed, and he will be civilly committed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just to back up for a second, the judge decides? If a decision had to be made about whether to forcibly medicate Loughner, is that a decision that goes back to the judge?

LAURIE LEVENSON: It goes back to the judge, but with all the input of the medical officials.

Frankly, the judges defer to what the likelihood is that this medication will actually work, what kind of medication it is, what are the downsides and risks. The judge has to look at a series of factors from two Supreme Court cases to decide whether to do this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, then he’s treated. And, as you said, if they feel that he — if they decide based on the treatment that he is competent to stand trial, the trial will go forward. But what if they feel the treatment is not successful?

LAURIE LEVENSON: Well, if the treatment is not successful, we don’t have a criminal trial. And that’s because we want to make sure the defendant understands that, you know, this is a moral decision of whether he should be held culpable for this crime.

So, instead, we go over to another system, where he’s committed. In other words, he’s not going to be walking the streets. He’s not going to be in any more parking lots. He will either end up in prison if he is convicted in the criminal side or being civilly committed and putting him in a mental hospital.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, at this point, what is the role of the prosecution in the case going forward?

LAURIE LEVENSON: Oh, the role — well, the role of the prosecution is to do what they have done so far, which is to give the judge the information he needs to make these decisions, having their experts weigh in on the decision.

I think the prosecutors will be watching this carefully. They want to go to trial if they can. But they understand that some of this is out of their hands. And the other thing they have to do is prepare for the trial itself, because, even if Loughner is found to be competent, you can bet, at the time of trial, he’s going to argue something like a diminished capacity or an insanity defense, that he couldn’t have the mental thought that he needed to be guilty of the highest level of crime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the prosecution play a role in determining whether he is ultimately found competent to stand trial?

LAURIE LEVENSON: Only so much as the prosecutor can come in and argue to the judge that, in fact, he is competent, you should believe our expert, not theirs. Medication should be used. Maybe he’s playing a game.

But, in most situations, prosecutors, if they believe the psychologists, will defer to them. And that is what has a major impact on the judge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Laurie Levenson, what is the history of cases like this, when defendants have been found initially incompetent to stand trial?

LAURIE LEVENSON: It’s hard to say.

I mean, I think a lot of people envision that so many defendants get off on insanity defenses or that they’re incompetent. And that’s really not the case. People who are incompetent, it’s an extreme decision by the judge. The judges are reluctant to find that. You have to be pretty far gone.

And, in those rare cases, the question is, can the medical professionals make him competent for trial?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Laurie Levenson, we thank you very much.