PHOENIX (Reuters) - A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that Tucson shooting suspect Jared Loughner should not have been forced to take anti-psychotic drugs against his will without a judge first ruling on his appeal of the issue.
The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals keeps in place a stay that court imposed on July 1 ordering officials at a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri, to stop forcibly medicating Loughner.
The three-judge panel ruled that a U.S. district judge in San Diego abused his discretion by denying Loughner's emergency petition seeking to bar the Federal Medical Center from involuntarily medicating him after an administrative hearing found he posed a danger to others in the facility.
Prosecutors have cited several outbursts by Loughner in which they said he threw chairs or spat at others.
But the appeals court panel said the government "has managed to keep Loughner in custody for over six months without injury to anyone."
"We are confident it can continue to do so for the short period it will take to resolve this appeal," the judges added. "And the record shows Loughner is not a danger to himself."
The appeals court ruled that its stay should remain in effect until a hearing on the merits of Loughner's appeal, and it ordered a such a hearing set for the week of August 29.
Although prison officials remain barred from giving Loughner anti-psychotic drugs against his will, the court said they were free to take less drastic measures to control his behavior, including forced administration of tranquilizers.
The 22-year-old college dropout was declared in May to be mentally incompetent to stand trial on charges he killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in a January 8 shooting rampage in Tucson.
At the competency hearing, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns cited the conclusions of two medical experts that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
Described by his own lawyers as "gravely mentally ill," Loughner has been since undergoing psychiatric evaluation to determine whether his ability to understand the court proceedings against him can be restored.
He pleaded not guilty in March to 49 charges stemming from the shooting at the "Congress on Your Corner" event, including multiple counts of first-degree murder. (Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb)