TUCSON, Ariz (Reuters) - Shooting rampage suspect Jared Loughner was dragged shouting from a courtroom on Wednesday before he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial on charges he killed six people and wounded Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns ruled that Loughner, 22, described by his own legal team as “gravely mentally ill,” was incapable of understanding the proceedings against him and assisting in his own defense.
He cited the conclusions of two experts, a forensic psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist, that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
The judge then ordered Loughner sent back to the federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where the college dropout previously spent five weeks undergoing psychiatric evaluations.
Burns ruled that Loughner would remain in custody and undergo treatment there for the next four months, and he set a hearing for September 21 to determine whether his condition had improved sufficiently for proceedings against him to resume.
The decision came shortly after Loughner, who had been rocking back and forth in his chair, disrupted the hearing by blurting out, “Thanks for the freak show,” or “Thanks for the free jail.” Courtroom reporters were divided on what exactly he said. “She died in front of me,” he went on as marshals hustled him out of the courtroom.
Sitting in court for their son’s hearing, Loughner’s mother wept bitterly at his outburst as his father put an arm around his wife to comfort her.
After a brief recess, the judge had Loughner brought back to the courtroom but excused him again when the defendant said he would prefer to watch the remainder of the proceedings on closed-circuit television from another room.
The judge’s ruling came minutes later with Loughner absent from the court.
Prosecutors had asked for a review of Loughner’s mental status in March, citing widely publicized accounts of erratic, paranoid behavior in the months before the shooting spree, including homemade videos posted on YouTube in which Loughner talks about mistrust of the government and mind control.
U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke told reporters after Wednesday’s hearing that his office was preparing to proceed with its case against Loughner.
“We are looking forward to him being returned to Springfield and that efforts are made to restore him to competency and that we can proceed with his trial,” Burke said. “Our goal has always been, and will always be, to go to trial in this case.”
Loughner is accused of opening fire with a semiautomatic pistol on Giffords and a crowd of bystanders attending a political gathering outside a Tucson supermarket in January.
Six people, including a federal judge, were killed, and 13 others were wounded, Giffords the most gravely among them. She is continuing to undergo rehabilitation for a gunshot wound to the head.
Loughner pleaded not guilty in March to 49 charges stemming from the rampage at the “Congress on Your Corner” event, including multiple counts of first-degree murder. Prosecutors had not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
One member of Wednesday’s courtroom audience, Eric Fuller, who was wounded in the shooting spree, said after the hearing he thought that Loughner’s comment, “She died in front of me,” indicated a belief in Loughner’s mind that he killed Giffords.
“But he reached that conclusion in error, and he’s not going to let go of that assumption,” Fuller said.
Fuller himself made headlines after shouting, “You’re dead!” to a local Tea Party activist at the taping of a town hall-style TV forum about two weeks after the shooting.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune