Jared Loughner Pleads Guilty In Giffords Shooting Case

Jared Loughner was found competent to stand trial in a hearing today and immediately entered a guilty plea:

CBS/AP) TUCSON, Ariz. – Jared Lee Loughner pleaded guilty Tuesday to going on a shooting rampage at a political gathering, killing six people and wounding his intended target, then-Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords, and 12 others.

Loughner’s plea spares him the death penalty and came soon after a federal judge found that months of forcibly medicating him to treat his schizophrenia had made the 23-year-old college dropout competent to understand the gravity of the charges and assist in his defense.

Under the plea, he will be sentenced to life in federal prison without the possibility of parole.

The outcome was welcomed by some victims, including Giffords herself, as a way to avoid a lengthy, possibly traumatic trial and years of legal wrangling over a death sentence.

The pain and loss caused by the events of Jan. 8, 2011, are incalculable,” Giffords said in a joint statement with her husband, Mark Kelly. “Avoiding a trial will allow us — and we hope the whole Southern Arizona community — to continue with our recovery.”

Experts had concluded that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, and officials at a federal prison have forcibly medicated him with psychotropic drugs for more than a year.

During the hearing, Loughner’s federal psychologist, Dr. Christina Pietz, testified that Loughner at different times believed and doubted whether Giffords survived the shooting, saying sometimes that there was no way anyone could have survived being shot to the head and other times that he knew she was alive.

“‘If this is true, Jared is a failure,'” Pietz said Loughner told her.

Pietz testified for an hour about how she believes Loughner became competent. Loughner listened calmly without expression. His arms were crossed over his stomach, lurched slightly forward and looking straight at Pietz.

At one point, he smiled and nodded when psychologist mentioned he had a special bond with one of the prison guards.

A plea agreement offers something for both sides, said Quin Denvir, a California defense attorney who has worked with Loughner attorney Judy Clarke on the case against unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Prosecutors would avoid a potentially lengthy and costly trial and appeal, knowing that the defendant will be locked up for life. Clarke managed to avoid the death penalty for other high-profile clients such as Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph, who bombed abortion clinics in the late 1990s and Atlanta’s Olympic park in 1996.

Earlier, Giffords’ wife Mark Kelly had released a statement saying that he and Giffords were fine with the plea deal. In the end, this seems like the best resolution for both sides as noted above. A trial would’ve taken years once appeals are taken into account, and even though Loughner was eventually ruled competent it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he could’ve asserted a successful insanity defense (the standards for competence and legal insanity are very different). Loughner still faces the possibility of state charges for which the death penalty could be sought but, so far, no such charges have been filed.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    It’s become fairly common here in Oregon to do plea bargains in death penalty cases simply because a death penalty trial and subsequent appeals are so expensive.

  2. melvin polatnick says:

    Gun dealers should have access to the national prescription drug data base. They can ask if the buyer is taking anti-psychotic medication, if the answer is YES, the buyer will be denied the weapon. Problem solved. Low level employees at any of the two nationwide prescription drug databases can have access to the names of those taking anti-psychotic medication, those about to wed should also have that information.

  3. Gromitt Gunn says:

    As you’ve noted in the past, Doug, it really is a shame that we have such barriers to understanding, identifying, and treating mental illness in the US. It is possible that Mr. Laughner would have benefitted from treatment before he did this.

    That said, I think this is the best solution for all, both ethically and logistically. You can’t simply erase the crime due to his untreated mental illness. But putting someone to death over a crime committed while not in your right mind to me seems beyond cruel.

  4. @melvin polatnick:

    Loughner was not on any kind of medication when he purchased his weapons and ammunition.

  5. Boyd says:

    @melvin polatnick: And to expound on Doug’s comment, the NICS check is designed to reveal any disqualifying condition for a gun purchaser. I can’t think of a disqualifying condition that the NICS check plus physical ID requirements don’t cover.

    And Doug, “Giffords’ wife Mark Kelly?” Really? I try hard not to play armchair editor on your posts, but sometimes you push me really hard on that point, such as now.

  6. Ernieyeball says:

    MP: Problem solved.

    DM: Loughner was not on any kind of medication when he purchased his weapons and ammunition.

    Sure would like to hear what you think the problem is MP.

  7. alkali says:

    In the end, this seems like the best resolution for both sides as noted above. … even though Loughner was eventually ruled competent it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he could’ve asserted a successful insanity defense …

    This is puzzling to me. It seems likely to me that Loughner had a valid insanity defense. Why is a good resolution to send a man to jail for life for an act that was almost certainly caused by his untreated schizophrenia? If we agree that mental illness exists and if untreated can occasionally cause people to commit criminal acts that they would not otherwise have committed, then what’s the objection to invocation of the insanity defense?

    This is not to say that I am particularly eager to see Loughner walking the streets. If you wanted to argue that Loughner will need to be institutionalized indefinitely and likely for life given that he has proven dangerous if his schizophrenia goes untreated, I’d probably agree. But then that should be the adjudication, not a fiction that he intentionally committed a criminal act.

  8. @melvin polatnick:

    Several problems:

    1. Most “anti-psychotics” are used to treat lots of things other than psychosis. If a woman is taking Risperdal to treat anorexia, should that prevent her from owning a gun.
    2. It’s probably far too broad a limitation to pass constitutional muster. Mental disorders are far more common than most people believe, and only a tiny fraction of a percent of which become violent. You can’t take away the civil rights of millions of people because a few of them might become violent.
    3. This is the sort of thing that tends to create unintended effects. The more “punitive” being diagnosed with a mental disorder is, the harder it is to get people who need help to go get it.

  9. @alkali:

    If we agree that mental illness exists and if untreated can occasionally cause people to commit criminal acts that they would not otherwise have committed, then what’s the objection to invocation of the insanity defense?

    From what I understand, the insanity defense means the defendent’s behavior has to be evaluated in light of their insanity. e.g. if I suffer from a paranoid delusion that the postman is trying to kill me and shoot him, that would be a valid insanity defense because if he were actually trying to kill me, it would not have been a crime to defend myself. If on the other hand I kill the postman because I suffer from a delusion that my dog ordered me to, that would not be a valid insanity defense, because that would be a crime even if my dog did so.

  10. Herb says:

    So crazy they’re accepting his guilty plea……..

  11. Carson says:

    @alkali: It seems that this “insanity” defense is being used more and more. There should be some ground rules that would apply and standards met before this can be used as a defense; rule one would be that the accused can be no more intelligent than a carrot and needs a straight jacket for life.

  12. Ernieyeball says:

    @ Carson:
    The insanity defense has been working for a long time

    Congressman Daniel Sickles saw the man walking in front of his house. The man, whose name was Phillip Barton Key, was a member of Washington D.C.’s social elite and the son of Francis Scott Key, author of The Star Spangled Banner. Sickles watched as Key attempted to call up to a second story window where Sickles’ wife slept. Sickles became enraged because he had known for several weeks that Key was sleeping with his wife. And worse, his friends and neighbors knew it too. Consumed by rage, he grabbed two handguns from his bedroom and ran out into the street where several pedestrians were walking. He ran up to Key screaming: “You must die! You must die!” Without provocation, he fired several shots at Key, striking him in the leg and thigh. The men engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle. Sickles managed to fire several more shots. Key fell back against a fence and pled for his life: “Please don’t kill me!” Sickles pointed a handgun at the victim’s chest and fired point blank at the helpless man. Key staggered away and died a few minutes later. There were at least twelve people who witnessed the killing. It was 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 27, 1859. Congressman Daniel Sickles (D.-NY) was arrested a short time later at the home of a friend and charged with murder. When he appeared in court to face a charge of 1st degree murder, his attorney said that Sickles could not be held responsible because he was driven insane by the knowledge his wife was sleeping with Phillip Key…
    After a sensational trial that became the talk of Washington D.C. for weeks during 1859, Sickles was acquitted of murder and walked out of court a free man.

  13. Ernieyeball says:

    @Carson: There are ground rules…they are rooted in Anglo-American law for over 400 years.

    The proposition that some criminal defendants should not be held responsible for their actions by reason of their mental state has been well established in Anglo-American law for centuries. As early as 1581, a legal treatise distinguished between those who understood the difference between good and evil and those who did not:
    If a madman or a natural fool, or a lunatic in the time of his lunacy do [kill a man], this is no felonious act for they cannot be said to have any understanding will.
    By the 18th century, the British courts had elaborated on this distinction and developed what became known as the “wild beast” test: If a defendant was so bereft of sanity that he understood the ramifications of his behavior “no more than in an infant, a brute, or a wild beast,” he would not be held responsible for his crimes.

  14. @Carson:

    There are ground rules:


    Additionally, the insanity defense is pretty rare (used in less than 1% of trias) and even more rarely successful (only succeeding 26% of the time). Like most issues involving crime, the illusion it’s becoming more and more common is largely the result of sensationalist media coverage.