Prison officials are unfairly forcing the man suspected of wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to take a powerful anti-psychotic so he can stand trial and possibly face the death penalty for a shooting rampage that also killed six, his lawyers argued Tuesday.
Prison officials said they are forcing Jared Lee Loughner to take the drug to treat his schizophrenia because they say he is a danger to himself and others. The forced medication was not meant to make him competent to stand trial, even if that happens to be a side effect, they argued.
Typically, prisoners must be allowed legal counsel and a detailed court hearing before they can be forced to take medication meant to improve mental health. But prison officials are allowed to forcefully medicate an inmate deemed dangerous without going to court, which is what has happened in Loughner's case.
Loughner's lawyer argued Tuesday the medication also is being forced on Loughner to make him mentally fit to stand trial and possibly face the death penalty. Public defender Ellis Johnston III asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to halt the forced medication until a hearing can be held on whether such an involuntary treatment is constitutional.
"They are using the forced medication to attain their goal, which is to have a trial," Johnston argued.
Johnston also argued that side effects of the drug Loughner takes by mouth daily could interfere with his ability to help lawyers prepare for trial.
Loughner, 23, is appealing a trial court judge's order that the forced medication continue during a four-month incarceration at a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. U.S. District Judge Larry Burns last month ordered a second round of treatments at the prison hospital after prosecutors argued Loughner's mental health is improving and that he can stand trial if the improvements continue.
Burns in May declared Loughner mentally unfit to stand trial after Loughner was arrested following a Jan. 8 shooting rampage in a grocery store's parking lot that injured the congresswoman and 13 others and killed six, including a federal judge.
Burns ruled last month that Loughner remains mentally unfit to stand trial, but said it was probable that could change with another four months of treatment at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners.
On Tuesday, Judge J. Clifford Wallace proposed that Loughner raise the arguments he was making now after the four-month hospital stay. That way, Wallace said, the court could determine if the side effects were so severe that Loughner would be unable to help with his defense.
Johnston countered that Loughner had a right to oppose forced medication at a court hearing before the treatment began and that the drug regime may be harmful, rather than helpful.
Loughner's lawyers and federal prosecutors have been wrangling over the appropriateness of the forced medication since they began in June after the inmate displayed bizarre behavior, including hour-long crying jags and screaming sessions.
Prison officials determined several times since that Loughner was suicidal and dangerous and have been requiring him to take risperidone since June, with a 17-day break in treatment while his initial appeal was considered. Loughner is also being given an antidepressant and two anti-anxiety drugs.
"Without the meds, he's a severe danger to himself," federal prosecutor Christina Cabanillas argued.
The three judges who heard Loughner's appeal challenged both sides with tough questions. A written decision will be issued later.