By Brad Poole
TUCSON, Ariz (Reuters) - A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Tucson shooting suspect Jared Loughner to undergo four more months of psychiatric treatment in an effort to make him mentally competent for trial.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns ordered the extension of Loughner's stay at a federal prison facility, where he is being forcibly medicated, after doctors testified during a daylong hearing that the college dropout was still delusional.
"The testimony convinces me ... that measurable progress toward restoration has been made," Burns said.
Burns in May found Loughner, 23, mentally unfit to stand trial and ordered him to be treated for four months at the prison facility in Springfield, Missouri.
With those four months expired, prosecutors asked for an eight-month extension, saying there is a substantial possibility that Loughner would be restored to mental competency by the end of that time.
Defense attorneys opposed the time extension and object to the forcible medication of Loughner with anti-psychotic drugs, saying it violates his due process rights.
Loughner is accused of opening fire January 8 at a crowded meet-and-greet with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Six people died in the attack outside a suburban Tucson grocery store, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge.
Loughner pleaded not guilty to 49 criminal charges, including several counts of firs-degree murder. Local prosecutors have said they plan to file state charges, including murder, after the federal trial.
A handcuffed Loughner, whose brown hair was cropped close at his request, sat quietly at the defense table in a white T-shirt, khaki pants and tennis shoes during the proceedings.
'HE FEELS REMORSEFUL'
The courtroom was packed with victims and their families, along with members of the media.
Psychologist Christina Pietz, who is treating Loughner, testified that although Loughner has improved in the roughly 60 days he has been on anti-psychotic and other medications, he remains incompetent to stand trial.
It will take about eight months more for Loughner, who remains extremely depressed, to be restored to competency, Pietz said.
Although his delusions, including hearing messages from a television and thoughts that his lawyers are blackmailing him, have subsided, he is still delusional, she told the court.
Having told hospital staff and his father that he wants to kill himself, he remains on suicide watch, Pietz said, and knows what he is accused of doing.
"He understands that he murdered people. He talks about that. He feels remorseful for what he did," Pietz testified.
In the two months he has been on medication, his thoughts have become more organized. Hospital staff haven't seen him responding to auditory hallucinations in several weeks, Pietz said, conceding that the hallucinations might still be there.
Pietz said she has told Loughner that she thinks he is mentally ill.
"He was devastated. He doesn't want to be mentally ill," she said. "I explained to him that that I thought he had probably suffered from schizophrenia for several years."
Although Loughner doesn't want to take the medication, he has remained "passively resistant," Pietz said, adding: "We've never had to force him in any way to take the medication."
After an initial course of medication stopped July 1, his symptoms increased.
"It was much worse than it was prior to him taking medication," Pietz testified. "He paced so much he actually developed a blister on his foot."
A second expert witness for the prosecution, Dr. James C. Ballenger testified that Loughner is improving, though the psychiatrist admitted he has never met the defendant.
"His humanity is coming back," Ballenger said, based on his review of medical records, court documents and testimony showing that Loughner is becoming modest around hospital staff, showing remorse over the shooting and not pacing incessantly.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune)