SAN DIEGO – A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the Tucson shooting rampage suspect may be forced to continue taking anti-psychotic drugs, rejecting a plea by defense attorneys that the decision by prison doctors merited more scrutiny.
US. District Judge Larry Burns' decision came after Jared Lee Loughner's attorneys filed an emergency request last week to prevent forced medication of their client without approval from a judge. Burns said he did not want to second-guess doctors at the federal prison in Springfield, Mo., who determined that Loughner was a danger.
Defense attorneys said Loughner had been forcibly medicated since June 21.
"I have no reason to disagree with the doctors here," Burns said. "They labor in this vineyard every day."
Prosecutors said in court papers that Loughner spit on his own attorney, lunged at her and had to be restrained by prison staff on April 4. They mentioned an outburst during a March 28 interview with a mental health expert in which Loughner became enraged, cursed at her and threw a plastic chair at her twice.
Prosecutor Wallace Kleindienst said Wednesday that prison officials were also mindful that Loughner is accused of killing six people and injuring 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
"This is a person who is a ticking time-bomb," Kliendienst said by closed-circuit television from Tucson.
Reuben Cahn, an attorney for Loughner, said prison doctors failed to adequately consider alternatives to medication, like using restraints and mouth guards or taking away his chair. He noted that Loughner is being held in isolation.
"He really is not posing any risk to others," Cahn said.
Burns rejected defense claims that the prison forced the medications in an effort to make Loughner competent to stand trial, a bid that may have required a higher burden of proof that drugs were necessary. He said the key question was whether Loughner posed a danger and that prison doctors, not him, were best qualified to answer that.
Kleindienst assured the judge that prosecutors had no part in the decision to force the drugs on Loughner, who has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges in the Jan. 8 rampage that killed John Roll, the chief federal judge for Arizona, and five others.
Loughner, who was not at the hearing in San Diego and did not listen in, has been at the Missouri facility since May 28 after the judge concluded he was mentally unfit to stand trial and help in his legal defense. Mental health experts had determined the 22-year-old college dropout suffers from schizophrenia and will try to make him psychologically fit to stand trial. He will spend up to four months at the facility.
A prison administrative hearing about his medication was held on June 14, without any of Loughner's attorneys present, and found that the suspect was a danger to himself. The warden upheld the decision June 20, the day before the treatments began.
Prosecutors said in a filing Tuesday that Loughner "is properly receiving medication."
The judge had twice denied requests by Loughner's attorneys to be given notice before their client is drugged.
If Loughner is later determined to be competent enough to understand the case against him and assist his lawyers, the court proceedings will resume.
If he isn't deemed competent at the end of his treatment, Loughner's stay at the facility can be extended. 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.