Judge refuses to halt Loughner's forced medication

Reuters News
|
Posted: Aug 26, 2011 10:03 PM
Judge refuses to halt Loughner's forced medication

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A federal judge presiding over the mass murder case against Tucson shooting suspect Jared Loughner refused again on Friday to order prison officials to stop forcibly medicating him with anti-psychotic drugs.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Larry Burns came after a prison psychologist testified that Loughner is suicidal, severely distressed and wracked by feelings that he is out of control.

Loughner has been housed at a U.S. Bureau of Prisons psychiatric hospital in Missouri since May, when Burns declared him mentally incompetent to stand trial on charges he killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Meanwhile, Loughner's attorneys have sought to keep their client from being given anti-psychotic drugs against his will, saying doing so is a violation of his due-process rights and an invasion of his personal liberty.

Prosecutors argue that doctors were prompted to forcibly medicate Loughner by a number of outbursts in which he threw chairs and spat at one of his own lawyers. They have asserted such behavior poses a danger to medical staff assigned to evaluate and treat him.

But the defense counters that the prison could employ less intrusive alternatives to anti-psychotic medications, such as tranquilizers and physical restraints.

Burns, ordered by an appeals court to reconsider the matter, said he was standing by his earlier decision deferring to the judgment hospital medical staff.

"I don't believe lawyers and judges should be involved in this determination," he said. "We should leave this to the doctors and the prison staff."

PSYCHOLOGIST TESTIFIES

At the time Loughner was declared unfit to stand trial, Burns cited the conclusions of two medical experts who determined the accused gunman suffers from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.

One of those experts, psychologist Christina Pietz, told the judge on Thursday that Loughner now appears to be a greater danger to himself.

"My concern is less with psychosis and more with depression," she testified by phone from the Missouri hospital, where she said Loughner is on suicide watch.

"He feels he has no control over what is going on around him," she said. "Any time I interview him, he's pacing back and forth, he's rocking back and forth, he'll sob uncontrollably."

Prosecutors also told the judge Loughner stays awake 50 hours at a time, pacing and shouting and crying, and that a recent episode of such behavior left him with an infected sore on his foot for which he refused treatment.

Burns had been scheduled to decide next month whether Loughner's mental condition has improved enough for him to understand the charges he faces and allow the criminal proceedings against him to resume.

But he said on Thursday he would give prison officials more time to prepare a diagnosis and treatment plan that had been due for submission by August 31.

The fight over the hospital's treatment of Loughner is expected to continue.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals initially ordered involuntary medication halted while the dispute was under review. But the appeals court changed direction later in July to allow forcible administering of drugs to resume.

The 9th Circuit has slated another hearing on the issue for next Tuesday.

Loughner, a college dropout who turns 23 next month, is accused of opening fire on Giffords and a crowd of bystanders outside a Tucson, Arizona, supermarket on January 8. Giffords is still recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.

He pleaded not guilty in March to 49 charges stemming from the shooting rampage, including multiple counts of first-degree murder.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)