Originally Published: September 28, 2011 7:40 p.m.
TUCSON - The man accused of wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a deadly shooting rampage can eventually be made mentally fit to stand trial, a federal judge ruled Wednesday in ordering that Jared Lee Loughner's detention be extended for four more months.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns said "measurable progress has been made" in restoring Loughner to the point where he could assist in his defense. Loughner has been at a prison facility in Missouri the last four months after Burns found him mentally unfit for trial.
Experts have concluded Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, and prosecutors contend Loughner can be made competent with more mental health treatment. But Loughner's attorneys argue prosecutors have failed to prove that it's probable his condition will improve enough.
Loughner listened intently and quietly at Wednesday's hearing. He looked thin and pale and was wearing a white T-shirt and khaki-colored prison pants. He had closely cropped hair and sideburns, and his wrists and ankles were shackled.
Burns noted the suspect's smirk was gone and that, for once, he was paying attention to the proceedings.
"There's reason to be optimistic he will recover and be able to assist in his case," he said.
Loughner has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges stemming from the Jan. 8 shooting that killed six and injured 13, including Giffords.
Earlier Wednesday, a psychologist testified that Loughner has improved to where he understands that he killed people and feels remorse about it, and can be made competent to stand trial within eight months.
Loughner is still delusional but has made strides during the past four months at the Springfield, Mo., facility, Dr. Christina Pietz said.
When he first arrived at the facility, Loughner was convinced Giffords was dead, even though he was shown a video of the shooting.
"He believed it had been edited" by law enforcement, Pietz said.
Now that the 23-year-old is being forcibly medicated with psychotropic drugs, "he knows that she (Giffords) is alive."
"He is less obsessed with that," Pietz testified. "He understands that he has murdered people. He talks about it. He talks about how remorseful he is."
As Wednesday's hearing dragged on, Loughner swiveled back and forth in his chair at times, and sighed as the talk turned to video surveillance of the shooting and later his delusions. But for the most part, he sat still and expressionless.
It was a stark contrast from Loughner's last court appearance, on May 25, when an angry, loud outburst got him kicked out the courtroom. According to court transcripts, he interrupted that hearing by blurting out: "Thank you for the free kill. She died in front of me. Your cheesiness."
Federal marshals whisked him from the courtroom, and he watched the rest of the hearing on closed-circuit TV from a separate room.
The judge required Loughner's presence at Wednesday's hearing, even though his lawyers objected and argued traveling would be disruptive for their mentally ill client.
Loughner wanted to attend so he could see his parents, who live in Tucson and were at the hearing. They sat in a back corner of the courtroom, holding hands and whispering to each other.
Several survivors of the shooting spree also were at Wednesday's hearing, including Giffords staffer Pam Simon and Daniel Hernandez, the intern who helped Giffords at the scene. Also in the courtroom was Giffords spokesman Mark Kimble, who stood only a few feet from the congresswoman when she was shot.
Pietz testified Wednesday that Loughner remains on suicide watch but is no longer having auditory hallucinations.
Extending his stay at the Missouri facility by eight months will give him enough time to become mentally fit for trial, she told the judge.
"He has already made improvements, and he has only been on medication for 60 days," she said. "Given the progress he has made today, I have no reason to think he wouldn't continue to make progress."
Prison officials have forcibly medicated Loughner with psychotropic drugs after concluding at an administrative hearing that he posed a danger at the prison.
Loughner's lawyers have been seeking to have the judge, rather than the prison, decide whether Loughner should be medicated.
Burns ruled Wednesday that officials could continue medicating Loughner based on the prison's finding that he's a danger to himself. He also said that Loughner's detention could be extended again after the next four months expires in January, but more "measureable progress" would need to be seen.
Loughner's medications include the sedative Lorazepam, the antidepressant Wellbutrin and Risperidone, a drug used for people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe behavior problems.