Gabrielle Giffords battles for her life; shooting casts grim light on U.S. political discord

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 5:45 PM

Federal prosecutors filed murder and attempted murder charges Sunday afternoon against suspect Jared Loughner, who allegedly killed six people as part of an attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), according to officials and court records.

Loughner, 22, has been identified by law enforcement authorities as the lone gunman in a Saturday rampage outside a Tucson supermarket that left six dead and 14 wounded, included Giffords.

An envelope in a safe inside Loughner's home contained handwriting stating "I planned ahead," "My assassination" and the name "Giffords" along with what appears to be Loughner's signature, according to the federal charges filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

Loughner is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of John M. Roll, a federal judge who stopped by to see the congresswoman after Saturday Mass, and Gabriel Zimmerman, a Giffords aide. He is also charged with three counts of attempted murder for the shootings of Giffords and two other federal employees.

Loughner is scheduled to appear Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, and prosecutors said they are drafting an indictment with further charges to present to a federal grand jury. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

The formal charges came hours after doctors in Tucson delivered a progress report for Giffords, who was able to respond to simple commands following emergency brain surgery. Giffords, who was shot once in the back of the head at close range, remains sedated and in critical condition at University Medical Center in Tucson.

"We are very encouraged by that," Michael Lemole Jr., the hospital's chief of neurosurgery, said about Giffords' responsiveness. "I am cautiously optimistic."

Authorities say the 40-year-old lawmaker was shot once in the back of the head at close range by Loughner, who then allegedly fired relentelessly on a small crowd that had gathered for one of Giffords' regular "Congress on Your Corner" events at the local Safeway.

The White House announced Sunday that President Obama will observe a moment of silence for the Arizona victims at 11 :00 a.m. Eastern time on Monday, and urged other Americans to do the same.

"It will be a time for us to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart," Obama said in a statment.

Authorities on Sunday increased the number for those killed or wounded in the attack to a total of 20, up from 18, after adding two more injured people to the list.

In addition to Zimmerman and Roll, the gunman in the attacks also killed Christina-Taylor Green, a 9-year-old born on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who attended the event because of her burgeoning interest in politics and public service.

(READ: Full coverage of Tucson shooting)

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a friend of Giffords since she was elected to the House, said Sunday that she told him just a week and a half ago that she was worried about the potential for violence back home.

"Gabby did tell me that she was concerned," Moran said, using Giffords's nickname. "She did say it's really bad out there, particularly in a district like [hers]. She was very much troubled that Sarah Palin put her in the crosshairs."

Moran said Giffords explained that, unlike in his Northern Virginia district, "a substantial percentage" of her district was "anti-government and pro-gun" - a potentially dangerous mix.

The sheriff for the county that includes Tucson, Clarence Dupnik, expanded on statements he made the day before decrying the virulent rhetoric directed at many government officials.

"I vacillate between extreme sadness, sorrow and shock and extreme anger" about the incident, Dupnik said Sunday. "When the rhetoric about hatred ... about mistrust of government" gets heated, Dupnik said, it inflames "the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Dupnik singled out three brave bystanders in the drama in helping to end the shooting rampage. After Loughner attempted to reload his gun with a second bullet clip, a woman who had already been shot grabbed the new magazine "and tore it away from him," Dupnik said. "She was trying to get the gun away from him."

Loughner was able to load another magazine into his pistol but the spring on the clip failed, allowing two men to retrieve the gun and subdue him, Dupnik said. The sheriff declined to name the three people, whose actions averted "a huge, greater catastrophe."

A 9mm Glock semiautomatic handgun was recovered at the scene of the shooting after Loughner was tackled by onlookers. Loughner purchased the gun legally on Nov. 30 at the Sportsman's Warehouse in Tucson, officials said.

(READ: Arizona gun laws among most lax in nation)

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and other authorities said they had ruled out the involvement of any accomplices in the shootings. A second man who had been sought for questioning Saturday turned out to be a cab driver who took Loughner to the shopping center, law enforcement sources said.

The two men were seen together on a surveillance tape because Loughner had a $20 bill and wanted to get change for the $14 fare, officials said.

At a hospital news conference, Lemole and other doctors gave a detailed and often riveting account of the efforts to save and stabilize Giffords after she arrived at the hospital Saturday.

Lemole said a single bullet traversed the left side of her skull, entering from back and exiting the front. Doctors removed damaged bits of skull and expanded the area further to relieve brain swelling, which remains the biggest medical concern, Lemole and other surgeons said.

Doctors said that after emerging from heavy sedation Sunday morning, Giffords was able to follow simple commands such as holding up two fingers when asked.

"This is about as good as good can get" with bullet injury to the brain, trauma physician Peter Rhee said.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on Sunday ordered flags at the Capitol to be flown at half-staff in honor of Zimmerman. He decried the rampage as "an attack on all who serve" and a reminder of the risks of public service.

"This inhuman act should not and will not deter us from our calling to represent our constituents and fulfill our oaths of office," Boehner said in brief remarks at his suburban Cincinnati office. "No act, no matter how heinous, must be allowed to stop us from our duty."

Bill Livingood, the House sergeant at arms, said in a statement Sunday that there "is no indication" the rampage is part of any larger terrorist threat. But he urged lawmakers and staff "to be continuously aware of their surroundings and to immediately report circumstances that appear suspicious" to local and U.S. Capitol Police.

Loughner's alleged motives are unclear, but YouTube videos and other Internet postings under his name suggest an addled young man obsessed with convoluted anti-government grievances, including ramblings about currency policies and mind control. His list of favorite books includes "Mein Kampf" and "The Communist Manifesto."

After Giffords fell, a 20-year-old intern in her office, Daniel Hernandez, helped keep her stable and stanch the flow of blood until paramedics could arrive. Hernandez, who has some medical training, said in an interview on ABC's "This Week" that he and others used smocks from the Safeway meat department as bandages.

"I had to lift up the congresswoman, because she was severely injured, and I wanted to make sure that she was able to breathe okay because there was so much blood," Hernandez said.

He said Giffords was "alert and conscious," and communicated by grabbing his hand in response to questions.

"I don't know how much time it took," Hernandez said. "It seemed like it took an eternity, but that's just because of the way that the events were unfolding, because I was trying to make sure that I was holding the congresswoman so that she could still breathe well, but also make sure that I was holding her wound so that she didn't - so that she was in good enough condition to be able to be transported by ambulance to a hospital."

Giffords's synagogue, Congregation Chaverim, scheduled a vigil for the lawmaker Sunday morning. Giffords is Arizona's first Jewish member of Congress.

The rampage stunned Washington politicians and has set off a spirited debate over whether the acrimony and sharp language that has dominated political discourse in recent years has gone too far.

Giffords, who narrowly won reelection in November, was among a group of Democrats who faced threats and acts of vandalism during the contentious and drawn-out health-care debate in 2009 and 2010. Giffords was included on a controversial map of targeted Democrats issued by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who urged supporters: "Don't Retreat - RELOAD!"

Appearing Sunday morning on CNN's "State of the Union," Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) singled out the Palin rhetoric as an example of "violent images and violent words" that contribute to a toxic political environment. Durbin stopped short of explicitly linking such language with the Tucson shooting, however: "I don't think you can ever make the direct connection," he said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), appearing on the same program, cautioned against tying Loughner's alleged actions with the rhetoric of tea party activists or other political groups.

"I think in all of the talk about this, we have to be very careful about imparting the actions of a deranged individual" to other groups, Alexander said. But he agreed that politicians and commentators "ought to cool it, tone it down" and "do our best not to inflame passions."

Giffords is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and her husband is a Navy captain and astronaut.

The White House said Sunday that President Obama spoke Saturday with Giffords's husband, Mark Kelly, to express his "deep concern and full support." Kelly has piloted space shuttles Endeavour and Discovery.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement Sunday that he was "saddened" by the shooting and that Giffords is part of a "new generation of principled and thoughtful political leaders that have come to Washington in recent years."

"She is a strong supporter of America's national defense, cares deeply about our men and women in uniform, and has pursued her oversight responsibilities with dedication," Gates said. "Our thoughts are also with her husband, Navy Captain Mark Kelly, an aviator and astronaut of great distinction, as well as the families of the other victims of this attack."

Staff writers Ben Pershing and Sari Horowitz contributed to this report.

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