Tucson killings case could take years to reach courts

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The Independent US

Jared Loughner, the man accused of killing six people during an assassination attempt against US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is due in court for a second appearance, but officials say it could take years for the case to progress through the courts.

Investigators have been poring over surveillance video, interviewing witnesses, and analysing items seized from Mr Loughner's home as they try and build a case against the 22-year-old college drop-out.

The next step was an arraignment scheduled yesterday afternoon in Phoenix for Mr Loughner, who is accused of opening fire on a political event two weeks ago in a rampage that wounded 13 people and killed six others, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.

It is a case that will likely take years to play out as it goes through the many phases of the criminal justice system: prosecutions by both federal and state authorities; proceedings over whether to move the case to a different venue; a possible insanity defence by Mr Loughner; and from prosecutors a likely push for the death penalty.

In a court filing late on Sunday the US attorney for Arizona asked that the federal case be transferred back to Tucson, further south, for all further hearings. It had been moved to Phoenix, the state capital, because one of the dead, District Judge John Roll, had been based in Tucson and federal judges there disqualified themselves because the victim was their colleague.

Investigators have said Mr Loughner was mentally disturbed and acting increasingly erratically in the weeks leading up to the shooting. If he pleads not guilty on the grounds of insanity, and is successful, he could avoid the death penalty and be sent to a mental health facility instead of prison.

"I don't see a lot of other viable defences," said Michael Piccarreta, a Tucson lawyer with 30 years experience. "It appears the actual guilt or innocence of the shooting will not be difficult to prove, and his pre-shooting behaviour seems to be a history of erratic behaviour – issues of pre-existing mental illness."

Before the case even gets to trial, the court would have to decide whether Mr Loughner is mentally competent to stand trial. If he isn't, he would be sent to a federal facility for at least four months to see if they can restore his competency. It could be up to a two-month wait just to get him into one of those facilities. "It could take a year, it could take a year-and-a-half. It could take longer," said Heather Williams, the first assistant federal public defender in Arizona.

One area that will help the pace of the case is the fact that it is a relatively simple investigation. While other high-profile cases have required a lengthy investigation to chase down leads and co-conspirators, the authorities have said Mr Loughner acted alone. Dozens of people witnessed the shooting, and surveillance cameras captured it on tape. Investigators say they have also seized writings from Mr Loughner in which he used words like "I planned ahead", "My assassination", and "Giffords".

Mr Loughner will face two cases – federal and state.

The federal charges will cover the killing and attempted killings of US government employees such as the judge and Ms Giffords; the state case will deal with the other victims, including the nine-year-old girl. Federal prosecutors are going first, as charges have yet to be filed in the state case.

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall has the discretion to decide whether to seek the death penalty against Mr Loughner in the state case, while the federal decision on whether to seek the death penalty rests with Arizona US Attorney Dennis Burke and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Prosecutors haven't signalled whether they would pursue the death penalty, but experts say all signs point toward that outcome.

Ms Giffords, meanwhile, has been transferred to a rehabilitation centre in Texas, where doctors planned to start her therapy for the effects of a bullet wound to the brain.