SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Prison doctors may continue to forcibly medicate the man charged with the deadly Tucson shooting spree last year that gravely wounded then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as they seek to restore his fitness for trial, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday.
The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court ruling that extended Jared Loughner’s stay at the federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri, and permitted staff there to administer anti-psychotic drugs to him against his will.
“It is clear that Loughner has a severe mental illness, that he represents a danger to himself or others, and that the prescribed medication is appropriate and in his medical interest,” Judge Jay Bybee wrote in the appeals court’s 117-page majority opinion.
Bybee also said evidence supports the lower-court’s finding that there is a “substantial probability that Loughner will be restored to competency in the foreseeable future.”
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns on February 6 granted doctors at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons psychiatric facility four more months to attempt to restore Loughner’s mental competency.
Loughner, 23, is charged with 49 criminal offenses, including first-degree murder, stemming from the January 8, 2011, shooting rampage outside a Tucson, Arizona, supermarket that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Giffords.
The Arizona Democrat, still undergoing rehabilitation for the head wound she suffered at close-range, resigned her seat in Congress in January to focus on her recovery.
Loughner, who has pleaded not guilty, was declared by Judge Burns in May of last year to be mentally unfit to stand trial after two government experts concluded that the accused gunman suffered from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
Loughner’s lawyers have for months fought the forcible medication regimen he is receiving, arguing that as a pretrial detainee he is entitled to have a judge, rather than prison doctors, determine whether such treatment is appropriate.
Burns has repeatedly deferred to the judgment of prison authorities, saying they are best suited to decide whether Loughner, a college dropout with a history of mental illness, posed a danger to himself or others.
When interviewed last year by prison psychiatrists, Loughner threw plastic chairs and toilet paper and repeatedly covered his ears in a sign he was hearing things, according to court papers. Authorities also have said they worried that he might try to kill himself.
But appeals court Judge Marsha Berzon wrote in her dissenting opinion that forcing Loughner to take psychotropic drugs might ultimately infringe on his rights to a fair trial.
“Assuming Loughner will put on an insanity defense, manifestations in court of how his mind works may well be his own best evidence,” she wrote.
At a hearing in San Diego last month, Burns cited a January 25 report from prison psychologist Christina Pietz outlining a number of signs of Loughner’s improvement.
These included his participation in group-therapy sessions with other inmates and a greater level of alertness, organization, coherent speech and eye contact on his part.
Attorneys for Loughner could not immediately be reached for comment on whether a further appeal was planned.
The 9th Circuit had temporarily suspended Loughner’s forced medication last July, but his mental health deteriorated in the following days and he was placed on suicide watch. The appeals court later that month reversed its ruling and allowed the forced medication to resume while review of legal questions at issue continued.
Additional reporting and writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Tim Gaynor