Shooting spree suspect Jared Loughner pleads not guilty

The suspect in the shooting of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords pleaded not guilty in court, the 22-year-old's first response to the charges.

Two weeks after the deadly attack outside an Arizona grocery store, Jared Loughner's grinning mug shot has become an enduring image of the tragedy.

Loughner did not speak but grinned in court and wore an orange prison jump-suit and glasses, and his wrists were cuffed to a chain around his waist as eight US Marshalls kept watch in the packed Phoenix courtroom and gallery above.

Loughner faces federal charges of trying to assassinate Ms Giffords and kill two of her aides. More charges are expected.

Investigators have said Loughner was mentally disturbed and acting in an increasingly erratic manner in the weeks leading up to the attack on January 8 that wounded 13 and killed six.

If Loughner's attorney uses mental competency questions as a defence and is successful, Loughner could be sent to a mental health facility instead of being sentenced to prison or death.

But his lawyer, Judy Clarke, said she was not raising issues of competency "at this time" after US District Judge Larry Burns of San Diego asked whether there was any question about her client's ability to understand the case against him.

Ms Giffords was shot in the forehead and spent two weeks in a Tucson hospital before she was flown to Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Centre Hospital on Friday. Shortly after her arrival, doctors said she had been given a tube to drain a build-up of brain fluid that has kept her in intensive care.

Hospital spokesman James Campbell said the next update on the Democratic congresswoman's condition would come when they are ready to move Ms Giffords to the rehab hospital.

Loughner will likely face state charges in the attack, and also federal murder charges listed in an earlier criminal complaint for the deaths of Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman and US District Judge John Roll.

Those are potential death penalty charges, which require a more painstaking process under Justice Department rules.

Prosecutor Wallace Kleindienst estimated that he would know within the next 30 days whether additional federal charges would be filed against Loughner.

Mr Kleindienst said prosecutors provided defence lawyers with records taken from Loughner's computer and documents of about 250 interviews made in the case.

The judge did not rule on prosecutors' request to move the federal case back to Tucson so that victims and witnesses do not have to make the four-hour round trip drive to Phoenix to attend court hearings.

The case was moved because one of those killed, Mr Roll, was a federal judge.

Ms Clarke said she did not oppose the request at this time, but questioned where Loughner would be jailed in Tucson if the case were moved.

Ms Clarke has not responded to requests seeking comment.

She is one of the top lawyers in the country for defendants facing prominent death penalty cases, having represented clients such as "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph.

She has a reputation for working out plea deals that spare defendants the death penalty, as was the case for Rudolph and Kaczynski.

The judge set a March 9 hearing to consider motions in Loughner's case.