Tucson suspect faces mental competency hearing

By JACQUES BILLEAUD | May 25, 2011 | 3:44 AM EDT

PHOENIX (AP) — The suspect in the Tucson shooting rampage will appear in court Wednesday for a hearing to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial and assist in his defense.

Jared Lee Loughner spent five weeks in March and April at a federal facility in Springfield, Mo., where he was examined by two court-appointed mental health professionals who were asked to determine whether he understands the consequences of the case against him. The competency reports by psychologist Christina Pietz and psychiatrist Matthew Carroll haven't been publicly released.

It's up to U.S. District Judge Larry Burns, who is holding the hearing in Tucson, to decide whether Loughner is competent to stand trial.

The case will continue to move forward if he's determined to be mentally competent. But if Loughner is found to be mentally incompetent, he would be sent to a federal facility for a maximum of four months to see if he can be restored to competency.

Loughner, 21, has pleaded not guilty to 49 federal charges stemming from the Jan. 8 shooting at a meet-and-greet event that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others and killed six people, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge.

Prosecutors had asked for the mental exam of Loughner, citing a YouTube video in which they believe a hooded Loughner wore garbage bags and burned an American flag.

The judge gave the two mental health professionals access to Loughner's records from his pediatrician, a behavioral health hospital that treated him for extreme intoxication in May 2006 and an urgent care center where he was treated in 2004 for unknown reasons.

The doctors who examined Loughner were ordered not to focus on his sanity at the time of the shooting.

Loughner's lawyers haven't said whether they intend to present an insanity defense. But they noted in court filings that his mental condition will likely be a central issue at trial and described him as a "gravely mentally ill man."