PASADENA, Calif (Reuters) - Lawyers for the accused gunman charged with wounding Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a deadly shooting rampage told a federal appeals court on Thursday that forcing him to take anti-psychotic drugs could cause him irreparable harm.
But 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski expressed skepticism during the hearing, which was held in Pasadena, a few miles from Los Angeles, saying of the defense team’s argument, “I don’t buy it.”
The three-judge panel adjourned after 90 minutes without issuing a ruling and gave no indication how long it would deliberate before deciding whether to lift an earlier court order that temporarily bars prison officials from medicating Jared Loughner against his will.
Loughner did not attend the hearing. He remains held at a hospital for federal prisoners in Missouri after a lower-court judge in May declared him incompetent to stand trial on charges he killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Giffords, at a public event in Tucson, Arizona.
The 22-year-old college dropout, described by his own lawyers as “gravely mentally ill,” has since been undergoing psychiatric evaluation to determine whether his ability to understand court proceedings against him can be restored.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns denied an emergency petition filed by Loughner’s attorneys in June seeking to bar prison officials from forcibly medicating him. Burns said he would defer to the judgment of doctors treating Loughner.
But the appeals court days ago ordered a halt to the involuntary medication while it reviewed the matter.
Federal prosecutor Christina Canabillis argued on Thursday that doctors were prompted to medicate Loughner against his will due to a number of outbursts in which he threw chairs in his cell and spat at one of his own attorneys. Such behavior clearly poses a danger to the medical personnel trying to determine his competency, she said.
But defense lawyer Reuben Cahn argued that forcing anti-psychotic drugs on Loughner amounted to a “serious invasion on personal liberty” resulting in “irreparable damage.” Prison officials coerced Loughner by threatening to strap him down and inject him if he refused to take pills prescribed by his doctors, Cahn said.
“Nothing can reverse the injury done to him,” Cahn said.
Kozinski expressed doubt about permanent harm, comparing the situation to a person taking pain medication.
Loughner is accused of opening fire on Giffords and a crowd of bystanders outside a Tucson supermarket on January 8. Six victims were killed and 13 were wounded, including Giffords, who is still recovering from a gunshot to the head.
He pleaded not guilty in March to 49 charges stemming from the shooting rampage at the “Congress on Your Corner” event, including multiple counts of first-degree murder.
At the competency hearing in May, Judge Burns cited the conclusions of two medical experts that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
Editing by Steve Gorman, Alex Dobuzinskis and Peter Bohan