By Tim Gaynor
TUCSON, Ariz (Reuters) - Tucson shooting rampage suspect Jared Loughner pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to an expanded, 49-count indictment that set the stage for prosecutors to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
The plea came shortly before the federal judge presiding over the case sided with prosecutors in ordering Loughner to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns set a May 25 hearing date on competency despite objections from defense lawyer Judy Clarke, who said such a proceeding was premature and could interfere with her ability to build trust with her client.
The 22-year-old college dropout is accused of opening fire with a semiautomatic pistol on U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and a crowd of bystanders attending a political event outside a grocery store in January.
Six people, including a federal judge, were killed and 13 were wounded including Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, who was shot through the head.
In asking for a mental evaluation, prosecutors cited widely publicized accounts of erratic, paranoid behavior by Loughner in the months before the shooting rampage, including homemade videos posted to YouTube in which Loughner talks about mistrust of the government and mind control.
"I am convinced by the government's argument that there is reasonable cause to believe the defendant may not understand the proceedings," Burns said.
DRESSED IN PRISON JUMPSUIT
Earlier in the hearing, Clarke asked the court to enter a plea of not guilty on behalf of her client, who stood by her side as the charges were read.
Wearing shackles and dressed in a tan prison jumpsuit, Loughner entered the courtroom with a slight smile on his face, sporting sideburns and his formerly shaved hair grown out.
Asked in court if his name was Jared Loughner, he replied "Yes it is."
Burns also granted a request by media organizations to release the bulk of search warrant records in the case, now that a grand jury investigation had been completed.
But he deferred a decision on a defense motion seeking to bar prison officials from furnishing the FBI with psychological records about Loughner and reports on his behavior while he is incarcerated.
Loughner is accused as the lone gunman in a shooting spree that turned an outdoor "Congress on Your Corner" gathering for Giffords on January 8 into a bloodbath. Giffords, described by prosecutors as Loughner's primary target, remains hospitalized at a rehabilitation center in Houston.
The return of the new, expanded indictment against Loughner launched a formal U.S. Justice Department review of the case to decide whether to seek the death penalty or life in prison.
The 28-page document, unsealed last Friday, contains 49 charges, including two counts of first-degree murder of a federal employee for the deaths of a judge and a Giffords aide. Loughner also is charged with causing the deaths of four others who were "participants at a federally provided activity."
Those charges as well as additional counts of first-degree murder through the use of a firearm are all capital offenses.
Judge John Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, and Gabe Zimmerman, the Democratic congresswoman's director of community outreach, were also killed.
(Editing by Steve Gorman, Jerry Norton and Philip Barbara)