TUCSON, Ariz. — Jared Lee Loughner agreed Tuesday to spend the rest of his life in prison, pleading guilty to the deadly shooting rampage at an Arizona political gathering and sparing the victims a lengthy, possibly traumatic death penalty trial.
His plea came soon after a federal judge found that months of psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia made Loughner able to understand charges that he killed six people and wounded 13 others, including his intended target, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
His hair closely cropped, Loughner was not the smiling, baldheaded suspect captured in a mugshot soon after the January 2011 shooting.
In tan khakis and blue tennis shoes, his eyes intent and rarely blinking, Loughner leaned into the microphone at the defense table and in a nasal monotone repeatedly told the packed courtroom: "I plead guilty."
"You agree you went to the congressional event armed with a Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol loaded with 33 rounds of ammunition planning to kill Giffords and the others?" asked U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns. "Is that correct?"
"Yes, it is," Loughner said.
"You walked up to Giffords and drew the pistol and shot her in the head at close range, intending to kill her, and then fired at the others, intending to kill them as well? Do you agree?"
"Yes, I do," Loughner said.
Asked if he had signed the plea agreement, Loughner said: "I did put my initials there. I do I have a good understanding."
Burns noted that Loughner's reserved courtroom demeanor Tuesday was far different from that of a year ago when he screamed in court and marshals had to remove him.
"He's tracking today," the judge said. "He appears to be able to assist his lawyers. There leaves no question in my mind he understands what's going on today.
"The defendant is presently competent," the judge ruled. "He does have a rational understanding and a factual understanding of the court proceedings. Accordingly, the court deems him competent as of today."
But, he warned Loughner, while the government is not seeking his execution, "you face a penalty of up to life in prison. And there is no parole in the federal system."
Burns accepted the plea agreement and added that he found it to be in the best interest of everyone involved.
Sentencing was set for Nov. 15.
After the hearing, Loughner's parents cried and embraced. The victims mostly just watched without expression.
The outcome was welcomed by some victims, including Giffords herself, as a way to move on.
"The pain and loss caused by the events of Jan. 8, 2011, are incalculable," Giffords said in a joint statement with her husband, Mark Kelly. "Avoiding a trial will allow us — and we hope the whole southern Arizona community — to continue with our recovery."
Giffords, though seriously wounded in the head, has slowly been recovering. The Democrat has since resigned from Congress.
In July 2011, a prison doctor reported that Loughner was depressed and insisting that "the radio was talking to him and inserting thoughts into his mind."
He was placed under suicide watch and often paced in circles about his cell, according to court records and pretrial testimony. He screamed and cried. He remained convinced that Giffords was dead, and became angry when told she survived. Once, advised he might face the death penalty, Loughner sobbed for nearly an hour. "I want to die," he said. "Give me the injection now. Kill me now."
Ron Barber, a former Giffords staffer who was wounded in the attack and later won election to her seat after she stepped down, said he hoped the plea will help the victims and their families "move forward and continue our healing process."
"I truly believe that justice was done today," he said after the hearing. "It is important to me that this individual never again is in a position in which he can cause harm to anyone else."
Experts had concluded that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, and officials at a federal prison have forcibly medicated him with psychotropic drugs for more than a year.
Court-appointed psychologist Christina Pietz testified for an hour about how she believes Loughner became competent. Loughner listened calmly without expression. Arms crossed over his stomach, he lurched slightly forward and looked straight at Pietz.
Susan Hileman, who accompanied slain 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green to the gathering outside a supermarket and was wounded in the attack, said nothing would return her life to what it was before the shooting.
"This is so sad — a 23-year-old who's going to spend the rest of his life in a box. I feel empty. What I want, I can't have," she said, adding that she was relieved the case ended. Still, "it's like a Band-Aid that keeps getting ripped off."
Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.