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Loughner family expresses sorrow for 'heinous' attack; doctors say Giffords making progress

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 7:27 PM

The parents of the troubled young man who allegedly shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people in Tucson issued their first public statement Tuesday, expressing incomprehension and sorrow over the "heinous" attack three days ago.

The statement from "the Loughner family" came hours after doctors treating Giffords (D-Ariz.) said she was showing progress and was able to breathe on her own as she recovers in a Tucson hospital from a gunshot wound to the head.

Giffords, 40, remains in critical condition after the shooting Saturday at an event she was holding to meet constituents outside a Tucson supermarket. Six people were killed - including a federal judge, a Giffords aide and a child - and 14 were wounded when a man with apparent mental problems opened fire on the gathering with a handgun. The suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, was arraigned in federal court in Phoenix on Monday. He faces federal charges of murder and attempted murder and is likely to face a raft of state charges as well. His family did not attend the arraignment.

After remaining silent since the shootings, Loughner's parents issued a brief written statement that was handed to reporters by an intermediary outside their home Tuesday afternoon.

"This is a very difficult time for us," it said. "We ask the media to respect our privacy. There are no words that can possibly express how we feel. We wish that there were, so we could make you feel better. We don't understand why this happened. It may not make any difference, but we wish that we could change the heinous events of Saturday. We care very deeply about the victims and the families. We are so very sorry for their loss."

As President Obama prepared to visit Tucson on Wednesday ahead of a series of funerals for the victims of Saturday's shootings, state lawmakers in Phoenix quickly approved emergency legislation to bar protests within 300 feet of funeral or burial sites. The Arizona House and Senate acted unanimously in a bid to head off a plan by a Kansas church to picket the funeral Thursday of a 9-year-old girl who was killed in the Tucson rampage. Gov. Jan Brewer (R) intends to sign the bipartisan bill immediately once it reaches her desk, her spokesman said.

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., said Monday it plans to picket the funeral of Christina Taylor Green because "God sent the shooter to deal with idolatrous America," the Associated Press reported. A spokeswoman for the church said it would not be affected by the ban because it plans to picket at an intersection 1,000 feet from the funeral service. The church previously has picketed military funerals, asserting that the service members' deaths were punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality.

In Washington, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday that the shooting spree shows that threats to public officials "continue to be cause for concern and vigilance."

Holder plans to accompany Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to Tucson on Wednesday afternoon for a memorial service at the University of Arizona. The president is scheduled to speak at the event, dubbed "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America."

On Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives scheduled a vote Wednesday on a resolution condemning the attack on the Giffords event and affirming the chamber's "belief in a democracy in which all can participate and in which intimidation and threats of violence cannot silence the voices of any American." The House called off other legislative business this week, postponing a planned vote on repealing Obama's health-care law.

Doctors at University Medical Center in Tucson said six patients remain at the hospital, two having been discharged since Monday. Besides Giffords, who remains in intensive care, three patients are in serious condition and two are in fair condition, said Peter Rhee, director of the hospital's emergency care unit.

"Everything is currently going well with all of those patients, and they're progressing as expected," Rhee said.

"I'm happy to say that she's holding her own," neurosurgeon G. Michael Lemole Jr. said of Giffords. He said she continues to follow simple commands and is able to breathe on her own without a breathing tube, although doctors prefer to keep the tube in to protect her airway and prevent infection. Lemole also said that her sedation has been reduced.

"I'm very encouraged by the fact that she has done so well," Lemole said. Given the traumatic nature of her injury - a 9mm bullet through the left side of her brain - the chances of survival, let alone recovery, were "abysmal," he said.

"She has no right to look this good, and she does," Lemole said. "We're hopeful. . . . But I do want to underscore the seriousness of this injury and the fact that we all have to be extremely patient."

Rhee disclosed that, after consultation with two military surgeons who have extensive experience in treating gunshot wounds, doctors now believe that the bullet that struck Giffords went through her skull from front to back. The physicians at University Medical Center previously said the bullet had apparently gone through from back to front, which could have happened if she had turned away from the shooting.

In response to a question, Rhee said of the entry and exit wounds, "which one is which, we can't say for sure." But he said that based on the expertise provided by the military doctors, the bullet "probably went in from the front and came out the back."

At a hospital news conference, relatives of three of the victims described the actions of their loved ones when the shooting started and spoke of their efforts to deal with the trauma.

Bill Hileman said his wife, Susan, was the adult who brought 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green to the Giffords event, dubbed "Congress on Your Corner." The child, a budding elementary school politician, was the youngest of the six people killed in the shooting spree.

Susan Hileman, a former social worker who was hit by three bullets, is expected to recover, her husband said. He said she has been experiencing flashbacks, reliving the scene as she lies in her hospital bed in a "morphine-induced haze."

Bill Hileman said: "I hear her in her semi-conscious ramblings screaming out, 'Christina! Christina! Let's get out of here! Let's get out of here!' And she keeps talking about the holding of hands and then the realization that she was on the ground and the bleeding was profuse. Her memory seems to end there."

Bill Hileman said his wife was holding the girl's hand as they waited in line to meet Giffords when the firing began. When doctors removed Susan Hileman's breathing tube, he said, the first thing she asked was what happened to Christina. He said that on the advice of a social worker, he told her the devastating truth.

"Suzie and Christina are generationally apart but very much birds of a feather," Bill Hileman said. For his wife, he said, the Giffords event "was a magnificent chance to provide a positive public female role model for little Christina." Attending it "made all kinds of sense" for the two of them, he said.

At the same news conference, two daughters of Mavanell "Mavy" Stoddard, 75, hailed their stepfather, Dorwin Stoddard, 76, as a hero for trying to shield his wife when the bullets started flying. Dorwin Stoddard was killed. Mavy Stoddard was wounded in the leg and was discharged from the hospital Monday.

"He heard the shots and covered my mom with his own body," Penny Wilson said of her stepfather. Wilson's sister, Angela Robinson, added, "It was a beautiful way to say goodbye."

Wilson said the two were "girlfriend and boyfriend" in the sixth grade, then went on to marry other people. After their spouses died within a year of each other following 40 years of marriage, they were reintroduced and eventually married 15 years ago, Wilson said. "They decided to be boyfriend and girlfriend again," Robinson said.

Giffords, meanwhile, is "still following . . . simple commands," said Lemole, the hospital's chief of neurosurgery. Those commands include squeezing a hand, wiggling toes, giving a thumbs-up sign. Lemole said he has even seen Giffords scratch her nose. All those movements, he said, are positive signs.

Doctors said their concerns about swelling in her brain have diminished every day. Giffords has yet to open her eyes, and Lemole said it is "hard to say" whether she recognizes her family - in part because she has been sedated.

Giffords's husband, Mark Kelly, an astronaut, and her parents have been at her bedside in the hospital's intensive care unit. Lemole said they "understand the severity" of her condition and that "they remain upbeat.

"They're taking it as well as they can," Lemole said.

Rhee, the trauma division chief at the hospital, said he feels Giffords has a "101 percent chance" of surviving. But he said it was too early to tell what long-term effect her brain injury will have. "I can't tell you whether she will be in a vegetative state," he said. "I hope not."

As doctors continued to treat Giffords and the five other wounded patients, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) decided to cut short a trip to Latin America to return to his home state for a memorial service on Wednesday for victims of the Tucson shooting.

McCain left Friday on a week-long trip to Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Panama with Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

In a speech marking the upcoming birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Holder called the Tucson shootings a "senseless and shameful act of violence." He said the tragedy, coming more than 40 years after King was assassinated, "serves as an unfortunate reminder that ... our world has yet to run its course of cruelty."

Holder added: "Without question, threats against public officials - whatever form they take - continue to be cause for concern and vigilance. But I do not believe that these threats are as strong as the forces working for tolerance and peace."

Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth in Tucson contributed to this report.

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