The Death Penalty and Jared Lee Loughner

Jared Lee Loughner pleaded guilty Tuesday to 19 counts involving a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and 13 others, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounded. As part of the deal, Loughner will receive a sentence of life without parole. Victims’ families have been spared the rigors of a trial, and prosecutors can be sure that Loughner will never again endanger the general public. Thank the federal death penalty, which applied because Loughner shot people at a federally protected political event.

Defense attorney Gerald L. Shargel wrote on The Daily Beast that though it would have been a steep climb, Loughner could have won an insanity defense given his “long and tortured history of mental illness.”

What could prosecutors have done to prevent litigation that would have spanned decades? “Obviously, the prosecutors have to give something up in order to get the plea,” Shargel told me. Not that he sees this as a game, but “the only card to play was taking the death penalty off the table.”

Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, issued a statement in support of the outcome. “We don’t speak for all of the victims or their families, but Gabby and I are satisfied with this plea agreement. … Avoiding a trial will allow us — and we hope the whole Southern Arizona community — to continue with our recovery and move forward with our lives.”

Death penalty opponents often argue that eliminating capital punishment in favor of life without parole would provide swifter resolution for victims’ families, who would not have to endure years of appeals regarding pending executions. Kent Scheidegger of the law-and-order Criminal Justice Legal Foundation says he likes swift resolution, too, but “it only happens when the death penalty’s available.”

It’s not even clear that this case would have been concluded without the death penalty.

U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns found Loughner incompetent to stand trial in May 2011 and sent him to a prison hospital for help. Successfully for a time, defense attorney Judy Clarke fought authorities’ efforts to administer antipsychotic drugs to treat Loughner’s schizophrenia. She did not want her client to be well enough to stand trial.

Because of the subsequent treatment, forensic psychologist Christina Pietz was able to testify that Loughner “has become human.” He regrets his actions, especially that he took the life of Christina-Taylor Green, age 9.

In the end, while Loughner was too mentally impaired to rate capital punishment, he also was too culpable to escape sure punishment for a well-planned killing spree. Prosecutors took the death penalty off the table, and Loughner agreed not to appeal the results. Justice will be served.

Robert Hirschhorn, an attorney and jury consultant, does not support the death penalty, but he agreed that without it, there would have been no deal.

“You really want to use the death penalty as a bargaining chip?” Hirschhorn asked.

I don’t see Giffords or Kelly complaining.

Email Debra J. Saunders at: [email protected].

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