Tucson Shooting Suspect Faces Competency Hearing

The 22-year-old man charged with the Tucson shooting rampage that left six people dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords seriously injured will be in court Wednesday. In March, a judge appointed a psychiatrist and a psychologist to separately evaluate Jared Loughner's mental competency.

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Today's an important day in the Jared Loughner case. A judge in Tucson will decide if Loughner, the man accused of killing six people and wounding congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is mentally competent to stand trial. NPR's Ted Robbins has been following the case and has this report.

TED ROBBINS: There's little doubt that 22-year-old Jared Loughner was a troubled young man before the crimes he's charged with committing. Classmates like Amber Troy noticed.

Ms. AMBER TROY: A lot of the times when he spoke, none of us understood what he was trying to say. He definitely thought that the government was controlling his mind.

ROBBINS: Loughner himself posted nonsensical YouTube videos, like this one taken while he wandered Pima Community College after being kicked out for disruptive behavior.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. JARED LOUGHNER: This is the school that I go to. This is my genocide school. They control the grammar.

ROBBINS: Just last week, the school released emails between faculty and staff showing concern over Loughner's erratic behavior last year. But today's competency hearing is not about whether Jared Loughner was sane last year, or even if he was sane when the shootings took place on January 8.

Forensic psychologist Mary Alice Conroy has done hundreds of court-ordered competency evaluations. She says competency is about current mental state, and it's a two-pronged test.

Dr. MARY ALICE CONROY (Psychologist): You're competence ability is your ability right now to understand what goes on in court on a rational, factual basis, and to help your lawyer with your case.

ROBBINS: In March, Judge Larry Burns appointed a psychiatrist and a psychologist to separately evaluate Loughner. According to people familiar with the process, they observed Loughner long enough to tell if he might be faking illness.

They talked with friends and family. And they asked him if he understood the charges and the legal process. If he didn't, they would've explained things to see if he's able to understand. And his understanding needs to be grounded in reality. Joel Dvoskin is also a forensic psychologist.

Dr. JOEL DVOSKIN (Psychologist): For example, a delusion about their attorney -that they thought their attorney was working for, you know, the devil, and in a conspiracy against them - obviously, that's going to prevent them from assisting their attorney, and get in the way of the trial process.

ROBBINS: The two evaluations of Loughner were submitted to the judge a couple of weeks ago. Presumably at today's hearing, their conclusions will be made public. In general, judges lean toward declaring a defendant competent. That's because the Constitution guarantees a speedy trial. And experts like Dvoskin say the justice system is geared toward resolving high-profile cases like this one.

Dr. DVOSKIN: The bar is set relatively low, so that you can be mentally ill and still be competent to stand trial as long as you know what's going on.

ROBBINS: If he's found competent, Jared Loughner will stand trial. That's when his lawyers could claim he was insane at the time of the killings. If he's found incompetent, he'll likely be sent to a prison psychiatric facility. Long-time defense attorney Dick Burr says there, Loughner would get therapy and probably medication.

Mr. DICK BURR (Attorney): A person who is found incompetent, every effort will be made to treat them and to restore them to a level of functioning that they are competent to stand trial. And then they face trial.

ROBBINS: Even though the courts lean toward resolving a case, today's hearing could go either way. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was found competent, stood trial, and was convicted. Russell Eugene Weston, the man accused of killing two U.S. Capitol policemen in 1998, was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. Weston was declared incompetent. He's in a mental institution, and he still faces murder charges.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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