PHOENIX, Arizona (Reuters) - A troubled 22-year-old college dropout made his first court appearance on Monday on five federal charges, including the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who remained in critical condition with a bullet wound to the head.
His hands manacled together, Jared Lee Loughner said understood the charges against him that stem from a shooting spree in Tucson on Saturday that left six people dead and 14 others wounded at an event Giffords hosted for constituents.
Loughner walked into the courtroom looking straight ahead. His head shaved, he made no statement but answered questions in a strong voice.
A police mug shot taken after his arrest and released Monday shows Loughner, who may face a death sentence, smiling broadly.
Loughner’s lawyer, Judy Clarke, waived a detention hearing. Federal Magistrate Judge Lawrence Anderson ordered Loughner held, calling him a “danger to the community.” The judge scheduled a January 24 preliminary
Having survived a shot to the head at point-blank range, Giffords, a 40-year-old Democrat, was in critical condition at a Tucson hospital.
Doctors said it was a good sign there was no increased swelling of her brain and that she continued to respond to simple commands such as squeezing a finger and wiggling her toes.
“Things are going very well,” said Dr. Peter Rhee, the hospital’s trauma director.
The shootings, which killed a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, fueled debate about whether heated political rhetoric, like that in the November congressional elections, could fuel violence and if all sides should tone it down.
At the White House, President Barack Obama mourned victims and steered clear of the debate.
“Right now the main thing we’re doing is to offer our thoughts and prayers to those who’ve been impacted, making sure that we’re joining together and pulling together as a country,” Obama said.
Bowing their heads, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paused for a moment of silence in honor of the victims. A bell tolled three times as an estimated 300 White House staffers offered their respects.
At the Capitol, security was tightened and flags flew at half staff. Hundreds of congressional staffers observed the moment of silence.
While the motive for the attack was not yet clear, people who knew Loughner said he was a troubled loner. Loughner withdrew from Pima Community College in October after several encounters with campus police, college officials said.
Investigators said they had found an envelope at Loughner’s residence with the handwritten phrases “I planned ahead” and “My assassination,” along with the name “Giffords” and what appeared to be Loughner’s signature.
The U.S. government has charged him with two counts of first-degree murder, which could carry the death penalty; one count of attempted assassination of a member of Congress and two other counts of attempted murder.
He is accused of opening fire with a semi-automatic Glock pistol while the congresswoman was attending a political event in a supermarket parking lot.
U.S. federal judge John Roll, who had stopped by to say hello to the congresswoman, was among the dead. Federal judges in southern Arizona, colleagues of Tucson-based Roll, have recused themselves from the case.
Giffords has been able to follow simple commands, such as holding up two fingers when asked, doctors at University Medical Center in Tucson said.
“I would say the best way of describing her this morning is that she is holding her own,” Dr. Michael Lemole told CBS’
“The Early Show.”
A single bullet passed through her brain on the left side, hitting an area that controls speech. Doctors were uncertain about the extent of brain damage she may have suffered.
Gun violence is common in the United States but political shootings are rare. The rampage in Arizona has prompted lawmakers to review their own security.
Investigators were looking at a rambling Internet manifesto left by Loughner or someone writing under that name. There was no coherent theme to the writing, which accused the government of mind control and demanded a new currency.
“I’m not aware of strong ties that he has to any group. This individual is a very troubled individual and he’s a typical troubled individual who’s a loner,” Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County where the shootings occurred, told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
U.S. lawmakers put off much of their work for the week, including a vote on a bill to repeal Obama’s healthcare overhaul that Giffords and other Democrats backed.
The new Congress convened last week after the November 2 elections in which the Republican Party won control of the House and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Giffords had warned that the heated campaign rhetoric had prompted violent threats against her and vandalism at her office.
In an interview last year with MSNBC, Giffords cited a map of electoral targets put out by Sarah Palin, a Republican former Alaska governor and prominent conservative, that had each marked by the cross hairs of a rifle sight.
After the shooting, the graphic was removed from Palin’s website and she offered condolences on a posting on Facebook.
Additional reporting by Peter Henderson and Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Andy Sullivan, Richard Cowan, Tabassum Zakaria, Kim Dixon, JoAnne Allen and David Morgan in Washington; Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Doina Chiacu