Deemed mentality capable to stand trial, Jared Loughner pleaded guilty on Tuesday for going on a shooting rampage at a political gathering in Arizona last year, killing six people and wounding former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
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 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. Ms. Giffords, who was shot in the head during the shooting, said earlier Tuesday that she supported a possible plea deal for Loughner.
“Gabby and I have been in contact with the US Attorneys’ Office throughout this process. We don’t speak for all of the victims or their families, but Gabby and I are satisfied with this plea agreement,” Ms. Giffords’s husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, said in a statement.
“The pain and loss caused by the events of January 8, 2011 are incalculable. Avoiding a trial will allow us—and we hope the whole Southern Arizona community—to continue with our recovery and move forward with our lives,” the statement said.
Experts had concluded that Mr. Loughner suffered from schizophrenia, and officials at a federal prison have medicated him with psychotropic drugs for more than a year.
Court-appointed psychologist Christina Pietz testified for an hour Tuesday about how she believed Loughner became competent. Loughner listened calmly, lurching slightly forward and looking at Ms. Pietz. At one point, he smiled and nodded when the 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 Ted Kaczynski.
Prosecutors avoid a potentially lengthy and costly trial and appeal, while knowing that the defendant will be locked up for life. Ms. Clarke also avoided the death penalty for other high-profile clients, such as Mr. Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph, who bombed abortion clinics in the late 1990s and Atlanta’s Olympic park in 1996.
The top prosecutor in southern Arizona’s Pima County said last year that she may file state charges in the case that could carry the death penalty. An official in the prosecutor’s office, Amelia Craig Cramer, declined to comment, saying the office didn’t have an active prosecution against Mr. Loughner.
Mr. Denvir said it was possible that the plea agreement called for the state to avoid pursuing criminal charges against Mr. Loughner. The decision to spare Mr. Loughner a federal death sentence makes sense, said Dale Baich, a federal public defender in Phoenix who handles capital-case appeals and isn’t involved in the case.
“As time went on and there were numerous evaluations, I think everybody had a better understanding of Mr. Loughner’s mental illness.” Mr. Baich said. “It appears that he will need to be treated for the rest of his life in order to remain competent.”
Mr. Loughner was charged with 49 counts of murder and attempted murder in connection with the January 2011 shootings. Six people were killed and 13 were wounded, including Ms. Giffords.
Ms. Giffords recently resigned from Congress to focus on her recovery. A former aide, Ron Barber, was elected in a special vote this year to succeed her. Mr. Barber also was wounded in the shooting.