By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors asked an appeals court on Monday to reject an emergency plea by Tucson shooting rampage suspect Jared Loughner to block his return to a Missouri prison hospital for more psychiatric treatment.
Prosecutors told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that defense attorneys lacked legal grounds to seek a stay of a lower-court ruling 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 charges including first-degree murder stemming from a January 8 shooting spree outside a Tucson supermarket where U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was meeting with constituents.
Six people were killed in the shooting, and 13 others were wounded, including the Arizona Democrat, who was shot through the head and is recovering.
Prosecutors, in seeking to block Loughner's request, argued that his attorneys had failed to show they were likely to succeed in their attempt to overturn U.S. District Judge Larry Burns' September 28 decision -- a key threshold for obtaining a stay.
Prosecutors also said there had been no showing that Loughner was likely to suffer "irreparable harm" by being sent back from Tucson, Arizona, to the Springfield, Missouri, facility, where he is being forcibly medicated.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit agreed on Sunday to consider the request for a stay while it considers an appeal of the ruling Burns issued following a daylong hearing in Tucson that was attended by Loughner.
Defense attorneys sought the emergency order and appealed Burns' decision, asserting that Burns' ruling was "legally erroneous" and asking that it be put on hold.
The appeals court decision to consider the emergency motion came after Burns put his ruling in writing on Friday, making formal his decision to extend Loughner's treatment time in Missouri. Loughner had been housed there since May 27, when he was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Two medical experts had concluded then that the accused gunman suffered from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
Burns also ruled last week, for a third time, that prison officials could continue to forcibly medicate Loughner with anti-psychotic drugs, and he concluded that prison officials acted properly regarding his treatment.
Defense attorneys have tried several times to stop the involuntary medication, claiming it violates his constitutional rights and that there is no legal basis for it.
The appeals court heard arguments on August 30 about whether Loughner can be medicated against his will and on the procedures that must be used by prison officials to do so. The court has not yet issued a ruling following that hearing.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)