The Case of Jared Loughner: Assessing Competence
Jared Loughner was arrested after being wrestled to the ground in a grocery store parking lot in Tucson, Arizona on January 8, 2011, after he walked up to United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, and shot her. Following that, Mr. Loughner turned his gun on others in the crowd. Those dying in the shooting included John Roll, a federal judge in Tucson; 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green; and four other bystanders. Twelve other individuals in addition to the congresswoman were injured.
Mr. Loughner was a troubled young man with a history of classroom outbursts at Pima Community College, which had expelled him, and bizarre postings on the Internet. Before he could be tried for these offenses, however, the issue of Mr. Loughner's competence to stand trial was raised. Among the questions that the mental health experts were asked to address, and the court ultimately had to decide, were whether Mr. Loughner indeed had a mental illness—and, if so, how the symptoms of that illness affected his capacities to understand
his legal circumstances, assist counsel in his own defense, and make rational decisions in the process.
Judge Larry A. Burns of the U.S. District Court considered the findings of two mental health experts in the case: Christina Pietz, Ph.D., a psychologist appointed at the request of the prosecution, and Matthew Carroll, M.D., a psychiatrist appointed by the judge. Dr. Pietz reported that Mr. Loughner's thoughts were random and disorganized, that he experienced delusions, and that he responded to questions in an irrelevant fashion. Dr. Carroll also described delusions as well as bizarre thoughts and hallucinations. Both experts concluded that Mr. Loughner suffered from schizophrenia, a form of severe mental illness. They described these symptoms as seriously impairing Mr. Loughner's ability to understand his legal circumstances and assist counsel in his own defense. The judge adjudicated him incompetent to stand trial and committed him to the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri for treatment to improve his symptoms and restore these capacities.
Because of the horrific and widely publicized nature of these alleged offenses, there was (and will continue to be) a great deal of scrutiny of Mr. Loughner's case. The prosecution in such cases experiences pressure to consider the death penalty, and to bring the defendant to trial and convict. The defense may struggle in working with a severely mentally ill defendant, even one whose symptoms are in remission, because the defendant may continue to show irrational thinking and behavior that is not consistent with defense attorneys' strategic recommendations. A judge must balance the arguments of both prosecution and defense in a highly charged, widely scrutinized atmosphere. Such cases test the limits of our legal system in the pursuit of justice under very trying circumstances.
Critical Thought Question
Why does the highly publicized nature of an alleged offense like Jared Loughner's affect the proceedings on a question like competence to stand trial?