Jared Loughner pleads not guilty in Tucson shootings

Shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner pleaded not guilty Wednesday to 49 charges that he attempted to murder Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), injured 12 people and killed six others, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.

In Loughner’s first appearance in a Tucson courtroom, U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns of San Diego ordered a hearing for May 25 to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial in the Jan. 8 rampage.

Loughner appeared beside his defense attorney, Judy Clarke, who asked the court to enter a plea of not guilty. Wearing shackles and a khaki prison jumpsuit, Loughner smiled, stared and sometimes grinned widely. His once-shaved head is now covered with dark hair and sideburns. He spoke only when asked if his name is Jared Loughner. “Yes, it is,” he replied.

Most of the hour-long hearing, held in the federal courthouse where slain Chief Judge John M. Roll had presided, centered on questions about Loughner’s ability to understand the court proceedings. Federal prosecutors had asked that Loughner be ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial.

“Certainly every murder is irrational, but this is more irrational than most,” lead prosecutor Wallace Kleindienst said in court. “His distrust of the government, his animosity towards the government, his belief that the CIA and the FBI were bugging him, his hearing voices.”

In the packed courtroom were about a dozen family members of victims, and at least two survivors of the shooting spree, Susan Hileman and retired Army Col. Bill Badger. Hileman, 58, was shot three times in the attack. When the shooting erupted, she was holding the hand of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was killed.

Badger, 74, was grazed by a bullet in the back of his head. He is credited with helping subdue Loughner at the scene.

Loughner’s father also attended the hearing, listening to the new charges against his son with his arms crossed, head down and eyes closed. Since the shooting, the Loughners have retreated to their beige brick home and virtually barricaded themselves inside. They have built a wooden enclosure more than six feet high, covering the front door and windows, and replaced the white mailbox outside with a locked one made of heavy black steel.

Prosecutors said in a motion that Jared Loughner, using the name “Fallenasleep,” had posted a photograph on his MySpace page featuring what appeared to be a Glock semiautomatic pistol, the same type of gun that was used in the Tucson shooting, on top of a U.S. history book. In the photograph was an image of the White House and the faces of American presidents.

Prosecutors also described a video Loughner posted on YouTube in which he is hooded and masked and wearing garbage bags on his body as he burns an American flag. The video is titled, “America: Your Last Memory Is a Terrorist Country!” The background music playing for the first half is a 2001 song, “Bodies,” by the heavy-metal band Drowning Pool, with the repeating lyrics, “Let the bodies hit the floor.”

Loughner’s defense team said in motions that it is in the early stages of determining whether he suffers from mental impairments. In court Wednesday, Clarke argued that holding a competency hearing would be “premature” and would damage the relationship that she is trying to build with her client.

“We’re not at that stage yet,” Clarke said. “The downside far outweighs the upside.”

But Burns said he has concerns about whether Loughner understands the proceedings, and ordered the competency hearing.

The judge also ordered the partial release of information contained in search warrants that had been sealed. Media organizations had argued that there was no basis for search warrant records to remain sealed and that the public had a right to the records.

“There’s something mystic and suspicious when a court withholds information,” Burns said in ordering the partial release.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
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