The suspect in the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords smiled and nodded but didn’t speak as he appeared in court Monday and his lawyer provided the 22-year-old’s first response to the charges: a plea of not guilty.
In the two weeks since the deadly attack that killed six outside a Tucson grocery store, Jared Loughner’s hair — shaved in the mug shot that’s become an enduring image of the tragedy — has grown out slightly.
The Tucson resident wore an orange prison jumpsuit and glasses, and his wrists were cuffed to a chain around his waist as eight U.S. Marshals kept watch in the packed Phoenix courtroom and gallery above.
Loughner faces federal charges of trying to assassinate Giffords and kill two of her aides. More charges are expected.
Investigators have said Loughner was mentally disturbed and acting increasingly erratic in the weeks leading up to the attack on Jan. 8 that wounded 13. If Loughner’s attorney uses mental competency questions as a defense and is successful, Loughner could be sent to a mental health facility instead of being sentenced to prison or death.
But his attorney, Judy Clarke, said she wasn’t raising issues of competency “at this time” after U.S. District Judge Larry Burns of San Diego asked whether there was any question about her client’s ability to understand the case against him.
Giffords was shot in the forehead and spent two weeks in a Tucson hospital before she was flown to Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center Hospital on Friday. Shortly after her arrival, doctors said she had been given a tube to drain a buildup of brain fluid that has kept her in intensive care.
Hospital spokesman James Campbell said Monday the next update on the Democratic congresswoman’s condition would come when they are ready to move Giffords to the rehab hospital.
Loughner will likely face state charges in the attack, and also federal murder charges listed in an earlier criminal complaint for the deaths of Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman and U.S. District Judge John Roll.
Those are potential death penalty charges, which require a more painstaking process under Justice Department rules.
Prosecutor Wallace Kleindienst estimated that he would know within the next 30 days whether additional federal charges would be filed against Loughner. Kleindienst said prosecutors provided defense lawyers with records taken from Loughner’s computer and documents of about 250 interviews made in the case.
The judge did not rule on prosecutors’ request to move the federal case back to Tucson so that victims and witnesses do not have to make the four-hour round trip drive to Phoenix to attend court hearings. The case was moved because one of those killed, Roll, was a federal judge.
Clarke said she didn’t oppose the request at this time, but questioned where Loughner would be jailed in Tucson if the case were moved.
Clarke has not responded to requests seeking comment. She is one of the top lawyers in the country for defendants facing prominent death penalty cases, having represented clients such “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph. She has a reputation for working out plea deals that spare defendants the death penalty, as was the case for Rudolph and Kaczynski.
The judge set a March 9 hearing to consider motions in Loughner’s case.