PHOENIX – A possible plea deal in the deadly Tucson shootings that wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords would send Jared Lee Loughner to prison for the rest of his life, a person familiar with the case said Saturday.
A court-appointed psychiatrist will testify Tuesday that Loughner is competent to enter a plea in the shooting rampage that killed six people and injured 13, including Giffords, said the person, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
A status conference in the federal case had already been scheduled for Tuesday in Tucson.
The person, speaking about upcoming events in the case, said the plan is for Loughner to enter a guilty plea in the murders and attempted murders. The plan is contingent on the judge in the case allowing Loughner to enter the plea.
The Los Angeles Times reported earlier Saturday that Loughner was set to change his plea.
Psychiatric experts who have examined Loughner, 23, have concluded that despite wide swings in his mental capacity, at this time he comprehends what happened and acknowledges the gravity of the charges, the Times reported, citing two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case was still unfolding.
Loughner’s agreement to plead guilty, if finalized in court Tuesday, would probably end more than a year and a half of psychiatric evaluations and testing, including some periods in which he was medicated at a federal prison hospital. It also would close out complex legal disagreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys over his mental capacity.
The shooting on a quiet Saturday morning stunned the nation. A man with repeated episodes of bizarre behavior was able to easily acquire a Glock 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol and ammunition, authorities said, and then open fire outside a Tucson supermarket where Giffords was holding a meet-and-greet with constituents.
Capital punishment initially was on the table when federal prosecutors in Tucson obtained a grand jury indictment against Loughner, and they announced the case as one with “potential death penalty charges.”
But soon after his arrest, the focus immediately became on whether he was mentally fit to stand trial.
Bill Solomon, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said he could not comment on Loughner’s case and the possibility of a guilty plea.
The Pima County attorney’s office, which has said it could also pursue state prosecution of Loughner, declined to comment, said spokeswoman Isabel Burruel Smutzer.
Loughner had pleaded not guilty to 49 federal charges stemming from the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting. Authorities said he shot Giffords, opened fire on the crowd and was subdued by bystanders. Giffords was shot in the head and subsequently left Congress to devote her time to rehabilitation.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns ruled previously that Loughner isn’t psychologically fit to stand trial, but that he could eventually be made ready for trial after treatment.
Experts have concluded that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, and prison officials in Missouri, where Loughner has been held, have forcibly medicated him with psychotropic drugs.
Even though psychologists have said Loughner’s condition is improving, his lawyers have vigorously fought the government’s efforts to medicate him.
At one point, a federal appeals court halted the forced medication, but resumed it once mental health experts at the prison concluded that Loughner’s condition was deteriorating further.