TOPICS > Politics

Guilty Plea, Life in Prison for Tuscon Shooter Loughner

August 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Jared Lee Loughner pleaded guilty to a 2011 shooting that left six people dead and 13 wounded, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Jeffrey Brown talks to Loyola Law School's Laurie Levenson about the plea, which will spare victims going through a trial and rule out the death penalty.
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JEFFREY BROWN: There won’t be a trial for the man who shot up a political event for an Arizona congresswoman last year. Instead, the gunman pleaded guilty today, guaranteeing he will spend his life behind bars.

A heavily tinted SUV brought Jared Lee Loughner to federal court in Tucson today, the city where he opened fire at a political gathering in January of 2011, killing six people and wounding 13 others, including then Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Some of the victims were there for today’s hearing as well.

ERIC FULLER, shooting victim: I came within maybe a couple of inches of losing my life at the Safeway. And that kind of experience stays with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The 23-year-old Loughner was originally deemed unfit for trial in May of last year after he disrupted a hearing and was dragged from the courtroom. He’s since been held at a federal prison in Springfield, Mo., where psychiatrists forcibly medicated him for schizophrenia.

Today, U.S. district judge Larry Burns declared him mentally competent, which cleared the way for him to plead guilty to 19 charges. Under the deal, Loughner will be sentenced to life in prison, sparing him the federal death penalty.

In a joint statement issued before the judge’s ruling today, Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, welcomed the plea bargain. They said, “Avoiding a trial will allow us and we hope the whole southern Arizona community to continue with our recovery.”

Giffords was critically wounded in head during the shooting, but has made major progress in the 19 months since. Earlier this year, in an emotional appearance on the floor of the House of Representatives, the three-term Democrat formally resigned her seat.

A few moments ago, federal prosecutors and other officials held a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Tucson. Here is some of what they had to say.

U.S. ATTORNEY JOHN LEONARDO: While no conclusions in this criminal prosecution will ever bring full closure to the victims of this crime or to their families, we hope that what we have accomplished today will be a positive step forward in the progress of healing and recovery from the tremendous losses that they have suffered.

JAMES TURGAL, FBI: But, today, justice was done. With the change of his plea, Jared Loughner will now spend the remainder of his life in prison. He will never be able to harm the Tucson community or any other community ever again.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now is Laurie Levenson, professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor.

So, help us understand the issue before the judge today. Loughner’s lawyers had to convince him that he was competent enough to enter a plea. What does that word competent mean?

LAURIE LEVENSON, Loyola Law School: Well, in the legal sense, it means that he understood what was happening, he understood the charges against him and he was able to cooperate and be involved with his lawyer and the proceedings, so that he knew that when he pled guilty, that really meant that he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have followed this case. This was a man who was before the same judge and was in very clearly in different circumstances in past appearances.

LAURIE LEVENSON: Oh, absolutely.

This judge has seen Jared Lee Loughner in all sorts of conditions. He is the judge who ordered the medication to be given, and the defense really didn’t want that.

They were happy to have Jared Loughner be in the prison hospital almost indefinitely. But the judge forced the medication, which made Jared Loughner competent, which meant that we could have a resolution to the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: So still to try to follow this here, when we use that word competent, we mean competent now. It’s a different issue from whether he was competent or sane at the time of the act, correct?

LAURIE LEVENSON: Very, very different, two different time frames.

When we take a look at the time of the act, we really talk about sanity or insanity. Did he understand what he was doing? Did he know the consequences of his act? And he might have. But then there is the issue, once he is brought to court, is he competent? Does he understand the proceedings, does he understand the consequences? Can he participate in his defense?

And that is where you have to have the experts come in, like they did today, and say, you know, with the medication, he is a changed person. He may have schizophrenia, but it’s under control and he understands what is happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the same time, his lawyers could have opted for an insanity defense, going that route, couldn’t they have? What is the calculation for them in trying to figure out the right approach?

LAURIE LEVENSON: Big risk.

And I think that there was something in it for both sides on this plea bargain. The defense understood that he might very well get the death penalty, even with the claim of insanity. And that is because, even though he was mentally ill, he seemed to understand what he was doing and wanted to do it.

And the legal test for insanity is quite a difficult test, particularly in the jurisdiction. So, I think the defense said, better to take the deal, spend his life in prison than risk the death penalty. And the prosecutors on the other hand said, if we go for the death penalty, there’s no certainty that a jury will give it to him. Some jurors might say, he is mentally ill, and, therefore, we will give him a break.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I was wondering about that. We just heard some of the prosecutors outside the courtroom.

So, you are saying, I guess, in any plea there is clearly both sides are making calculations and thinking that they are coming ahead. But in this case, on — the federal prosecutors thought better to take this plea and settle it right now?

LAURIE LEVENSON: I think that is what the federal prosecutors thought, and I think they thought that in particular because it would have been so much to put the victims and the victims’ families through for this type of trial with no certainty at the end.

At least now, they know that Jared Loughner will never get out of prison. And they could do all of that without hearing all the episode of the crime again and then hoping that perhaps the jury would agree with the death penalty.

And don’t forget, maybe not all the victims’ family even wanted the death penalty.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how did they convince — or what is required for convincing the judge of this competence question? Because it’s not only a question of saying that he is fit for a trial, but then also saying fit for a trial, but we are not going to go for the trial. We are going to go for the plea. So, they have expert witnesses. Does the judge have to talk to Loughner himself and get sort of personal testimony?

LAURIE LEVENSON: Well, the plea bargain process and the plea that is given has the judge interacting with the defendant and with his lawyers.

So, what I understand happened today is that the judge heard from an expert who said, I know Jared Loughner. I know how this medication is working on him. I see him in the courtroom today. And he is competent. He understands what is going on.

And after the expert said that, the judge, himself, took the guilty plea, which means that Jared Loughner had to acknowledge what he was pleading to, what rights he was giving up, and the judge could see with his own eyes and the demeanor that in fact this is a person who was competent.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we also noted that the congresswoman and her husband and I think some of the other victims were accepting of this. They said so even before it was formalized. Does that play any role, do you think, for the judge in his decision?

LAURIE LEVENSON: I think that is huge.

You know, the judge didn’t have to accept this plea bargain. And I think the judge very much had on his mind, how will the victims react? So, when you had a Congresswoman Giffords and you had the other family members there saying, we agree with this resolution, it certainly makes it a lot easier on the judge to say this is a just result.

JEFFREY BROWN: One last question. How unusual is a case like — is something like this, to have this change of plea and when it is, you know, a national — of national stature and national attention? How unusual is a case like this?

LAURIE LEVENSON: It’s unusual, but it’s not unprecedented.

And some of your viewers might remember the Unabomber case, the Ted Kaczynski case, where he also had mental problems. He took over his own defense. He wanted to plead guilty. Sometimes, these things happen.

What is unusual here was the nature of the tragedy and how much the nation was watching this case.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Laurie Levenson, thanks so much.

LAURIE LEVENSON: My pleasure.