Federal prosecutors expressed confidence that Loughner eventually will be tried, but the ruling nevertheless introduced the possibility of indefinite delays in a case that has been closely watched by millions of Americans. Since the shooting, which also wounded 12 others, Giffords’s recovery has been chronicled by the media and prosecutors have gradually laid out the evidence they have compiled against Loughner.
Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot above her left eye, remains in a Houston medical center, where last week surgeons repaired a section of her skull with a ceramic implant. Just days before, she witnessed her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, ascend into space aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.
Entering Wednesday’s hearing, Loughner, wearing a khaki prison suit, could be heard mumbling that the proceedings were “treasonous,” according to a witness.
Also, the Associated Press reported that Loughner said what sounded like “Thank you for the freak show. She died in front of me” before being escorted from the courtroom.
Loughner reportedly watched the end of the hearing on closed-circuit television after the judge gave him the option of restraining his outbursts or leaving the courtroom.
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke, who is prosecuting the case, predicted that Loughner would be successfully medicated — willingly or forcibly — and then stand trial.
“We believe that Jared Loughner can be restored to competency through proper medication, and we’re pursuing that course,” Robbie Sherwood said in a telephone interview.
“This practice is common,” he said, adding that in “the vast majority of cases where defendants are declared not competent, they have been restored and go on to proceed with the cases.”
A call seeking comment from Loughner’s defense team at the Phoenix federal public defender’s office was not returned Wednesday.
Some legal experts disputed Sherwood’s contention and cautioned that restoring the mental capacity of schizophrenic defendants can take years.
Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney in the District, pointed to the case of Eugene Weston Jr., who fatally shot two federal officers at the U.S. Capitol in 1998. Weston, found to be a paranoid schizophrenic, remains in a mental institution and has not gone on trial.
DiGenova, who helped prosecute presidential shooter John Hinckley Jr., said that in Loughner’s case, “whether psychotropic medication can get him to a balanced competence so that he can assist his lawyer and understand the nature of the case against him remains to be seen. . . . It’s not inconceivable that he would be in a mental institution for many years.”