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Loughner pleads guilty in Tucson shooting, faces life sentence

By Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau –

TUCSON, Ariz. — Jared Lee Loughner pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing six people and injuring 13, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, after a mental health official and a federal judge concluded that — because he’s been taking his medications — he understands he is personally responsible for opening fire during a congressional constituent meeting here last year.

The plea arrangement, struck between federal prosecutors and defense attorneys after months of legal debate over Loughner’s mental capacity, sets the stage for a likely sentence of life in prison with no parole.

Loughner pleaded guilty to 19 of the 49 grand jury indictment counts against him — the murders of six people, and the attempted murders of 13, including Giffords, a Tucson Democrat. Among those killed were U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green.

In tan khakis and blue tennis shoes, his hair shaven tight, his eyes intent and rarely blinking, the 23-year-old Loughner leaned into the microphone at the defense table and in a nasal monotone repeatedly told the packed courtroom: “I plead guilty.”

“You agree you went to the congressional event armed with a Glock 9 millimeter semiautomatic pistol loaded with 33 rounds of ammunition planning to kill Giffords and the others?” asked U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns. “Is that correct?”

“Yes, it is,” Loughner said.

“You walked up to Giffords and drew the pistol and shot her in the head at close range, intending to kill her, and then fired at the others, intending to kill them as well? Do you agree?”

“Yes, I do,” Loughner said.

Asked if he had signed the plea agreement, Loughner said: “I did put my initials there. I do I have a good understanding.”

Burns noted that Loughner’s reserved courtroom demeanor Tuesday was far different from that of a year ago when he screamed in court and marshals had to remove him.

“He’s tracking today,” the judge said. “He appears to be able to assist his lawyers. There leaves no question in my mind he understands what’s going on today.

“The defendant is presently competent,” the judge ruled. “He does have a rational understanding and a factual understanding of the court proceedings. Accordingly, the court deems him competent as of today.”

But, he warned Loughner, while the government is not seeking his execution, “you face a penalty of up to life in prison. And there is no parole in the federal system.”

Victims of the Jan. 8, 2011, attack outside a local Safeway grocery store generally accepted the plea, with many expressing little desire to sit through a lengthy trial that could have ended in a ruling of insanity.

Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, said they were “satisfied” with Tuesday’s outcome. “The pain and loss caused by the events of January 8, 2011, are incalculable,” they said in a public statement. “Avoiding a trial will allow us — and we hope the whole Southern Arizona community — to continue with our recovery and move forward with our lives.”

Susan Hileman, who brought the 9-year-old girl to the constituents meeting, accepted the plea agreement for what it was. “This is the system doing its best,” she said. “It’s not a perfect solution.”

Prosecutors had initially considered the death penalty for Loughner, while defense lawyers had sought to prove him mentally unstable to stand trial. The wrangling put his case on hold for months, with mental health experts evaluating him at a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo.

Christina Pietz, a forensic psychologist for the Bureau of Prisons, concluded that Loughner has a severe mental illness — “he is one of the worst” — but is nonetheless competent. As long as he continues to take his medications, she said, “he will be able to process what is going on.”

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