By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A federal judge has ordered a conditional change of plea hearing for the man accused of killing six people and wounding then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others in a mass shooting in Tucson last year, court documents showed on Monday.
District Court Judge Larry Burns said he would hear the possible change of plea for 23-year-old Jared Lee Loughner if he is found mentally competent at an already scheduled status hearing set for Tuesday in federal court in Tucson.
Loughner, who was declared mentally unfit to stand trial last year, had a plea of not guilty entered on his behalf last year to 49 criminal charges stemming from the January 2011 shooting spree outside a Tucson supermarket.
"If the court finds the defendant competent, his counsel has requested a follow-on change of plea hearing," the court ruling said. "Assuming the court finds the defendant competent, it will also consider whether to accept the defendant's proffered pleas at the August 7 hearing."
Giffords, an Arizona Democrat seen as a rising star in the party, was holding one of her regular "Congress On Your Corner" events at the supermarket when she was shot through the head at close range by a gunman who killed six other people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
Judge Burns' order confirms reports over the weekend indicating that Loughner was set to plead guilty to the mass shootings following the competency hearing at which mental health experts will testify about his current mental state.
A source confirmed to Reuters on Saturday that the federal government now believes Loughner is competent and will make that argument in court on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear on which charges Loughner will plead guilty.
The hearing will be Loughner's fourth to determine whether he is able to meet the legal requirements of being able to understand the legal proceedings against him and assist in his own defense.
Burns ordered this latest competency hearing in June to get an update on Loughner's state of mind following more a year of treatment and legal wrangling.
The college dropout was determined unfit for trial in May 2011 after experts said he suffered from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
He has been held at a federal psychiatric hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where he has been forcibly medicated against his will to treat psychosis and make him fit for trial.
Giffords stepped down from office in the U.S. House of Representatives in January to recover from being shot through the head in the shooting spree. A spokeswoman for Giffords could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Editing by Mary Slosson and Cynthia Johnston; desking by Gary Crosse)