WASHINGTON – Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ fans across the nation got their first glimpse of the Arizona congresswoman since she was shot in January, with two new photos posted Sunday on her official Facebook page.
The images, taken May 17, stirred an outpouring of goodwill, with more than 1,500 encouraging comments by late afternoon.
And a close friend of Giffords said Sunday that her communication skills are improving. Her chief of staff had said Giffords was often forced to rely on gestures and facial expressions. But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Giffords is speaking in sentences.
Giffords and a dozen others were seriously wounded and six people were killed in a shooting rampage outside a Tucson grocery store. The alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial, but his prosecution could go forward if his condition improves.
In the new photos, the Tucson Democrat’s hair is dark and closely cropped, rather than the shoulder-length blond style she wore before the Jan. 8 assassination attempt. But her beaming smile is intact.
One of the photos is posed, with Giffords looking directly at the camera. The other is more casual and shows her sitting alongside her mother, Gloria Giffords.
Giffords spokesman C.J. Karamargin said Sunday that the photos were intended to help satisfy “intense interest in the congresswoman’s appearance.”
Her staff hopes the images will reduce unwanted photography when she begins visiting an outpatient clinic.
“What we wanted to avoid was a paparazzi-like frenzy,” he told the Associated Press.
Her staff hopes Giffords will be released from the hospital within the next month, he said. After that, she’ll receive outpatient therapy.
During an interview with the Arizona Republic published last week, chief of staff Pia Carusone was asked when the public would get a look at Giffords.
“This is a one-step-at-a-time process,” Carusone said. “… I think that we’re getting close to the time when Gabby will feel comfortable releasing a photo. Then, we go from there.”
The latest photos were taken by photojournalist P.K. Weis of SouthwestPhotoBank.com, a longtime photographer for the now-defunct Tucson Citizen who has known Giffords for more than a decade.
Weis took the pictures the day before she underwent a cranioplasty to repair part of her skull that was removed because of brain swelling.