WASHINGTON — In an earlier time, the emerging portrait of a deeply troubled young man might have given Jared Loughner’s lawyers the basis of an insanity defense. But John Hinckley’s successful insanity claim after shooting President Reagan led Congress to raise the bar, making the task harder.
The Justice Department has not said whether it will seek the death penalty against Loughner, the suspect in the Arizona shooting of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of a federal judge, a congressional aide, and four other people. But veteran lawyers anticipate they will ask for him to be executed.
Many witnesses and ample evidence strongly suggest the government will have no trouble placing the gun in Loughner’s hands at the Tucson shopping center where the shootings took place. Internet postings and material investigators said they found at Loughner’s home suggest that he had prior contact with Giffords and might have been planning the rampage.
Yet comments from friends and former classmates bolstered by Loughner’s own Internet postings also have painted a picture of a social outcast with almost indecipherable beliefs steeped in mistrust and paranoia.
Loughner made a brief appearance in court yesterday, acknowledging the charges against him. He was ordered held without bail. He is charged with one federal count of attempted assassination of a member of Congress, two counts of killing an employee of the federal government, and two counts of attempting to kill a federal employee.
He also faces state charges involving the deaths of four people who were not federal employees, the more than a dozen wounded, and dozens more who were in the line of fire but not injured.
Before the attempted assassination of Reagan, “this would be a clear case of insanity, because the premeditation would not be seen as undercutting insanity, it would be part of demonstrating insanity,’’ Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz said in a telephone interview.
But under the post-Hinckley rules, he said, “that’s a very uphill battle.’’ Public outrage over the jury’s verdict in Hinckley’s trial — not guilty by reason of insanity — prompted Congress to make it much more difficult to establish that claim in federal courts.
His lawyers probably will make the strongest possible argument to dissuade prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty.
Among arguments that could be made is that Loughner was mentally impaired. That argument concedes that a defendant bears some responsibility for what he has done.
Material from Bloomberg News was used in this report.