By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - An appeals court granted a stay on Tuesday temporarily blocking Tucson shooting rampage suspect Jared Loughner's return to a Missouri prison hospital for more psychiatric treatment.
The stay will remain in effect while the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reviews a defense plea challenging a court ruling last week giving prison doctors four more months to restore Loughner's mental competency so he can stand trial.
The 23-year-old college dropout has pleaded not guilty to 49 criminal charges including first-degree murder stemming from a January shooting spree that killed six people and wounded 13 others, among them Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The Arizona Democrat, who was meeting with constituents outside a supermarket at the time, was shot through the head and is still recovering.
The three-judge appellate panel that granted the stay said it would hear oral arguments on the defense plea by October 8. The arguments will be presented by telephone conference call, the panel said in its two-page order.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns declared Loughner mentally incompetent on May 25, citing the conclusions of two medical experts that he suffered from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
Then on September 28, he granted a prosecution request for additional time to restore Loughner's fitness for trial. The defense is seeking to overturn that decision, calling it "legally erroneous."
Burns also ruled last week, for a third time, that prison officials could continue to forcibly medicate Loughner with anti-psychotic drugs, which defense lawyers have repeatedly sought to halt as a violation of his constitutional rights.
The appeals court heard arguments on August 30 about whether Loughner can be medicated against his will and on the procedures prison officials must follow to do so. The court has not yet issued a ruling.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)