Criminal Law

Attorney is Loughner's Best (and Only?) Hope

It seems like a foregone conclusion. Jared Loughner shot 20 people in Tucson, killing six of them. So he'll be convicted of the crimes, right? Not so fast. His only defense may be criminal insanity, but his court-appointed lawyer, Judy Clarke, has been down this road many times before. 

The Crimes

The world knows what happened on January 8, 2011 just outside a grocery store in Arizona. As Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords prepared for a town hall style meeting with voters, Jared Loughner (it's alleged) approached and began shooting a handgun. She was his target.

At point-blank range, Giffords was shot in the head. Six people in her immediate area were killed, including John Roll, a federal judge in Arizona, and Gabe Zimmerman, an aide to Congresswoman Giffords.


Bystanders at the scene were able to disarm and detain Loughner until police arrived. He was arrested. Then:

  • On January 9, federal prosecutors filed federal criminal charges against Loughner, including attempted murder (Giffords) and first degree murder (Roll and Zimmerman) of federal employees
  • On January 10, Loughner appeared in court and was advised of the charges against him. He's ordered held without bail
  • A federal judge from California was appointed to preside over the case after the entire Arizona federal judiciary recused itself because of Judge Roll's death - to avoid any claim that the judges treated Loughner unfairly

His Attorney

Shortly before Loughner's first court appearance, defense attorney Judy Clarke was appointed to represent him. Why? She's uniquely qualified. At least one federal charge filed against Loughner carries the death penalty - the murder charge connected to Judge Roll.

Clarke is a death penalty specialist. Some of her past clients include Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; Ted Kaczynski; Zacarias Moussaoui (the "20th" 9/11 highjacker); Eric Robert Rudolph (the "Olympic Park Bomber"); and other defendants whose capital crimes didn't make the national news.

Like many of those cases, Clarke's main job is to build a defense based on Loughner's mental state. The insanity defense is likely Loughner's only defense.

It's up to US Attorney General William Holder to decide if the prosecution will seek the death penalty. Even if the death penalty isn't asked for in the federal case, Loughner could face the death penalty under Arizona state law for the murders of the other victims. 

What's Next?

Truly only Clarke and prosecution knows what will come next, but here are some things we're likely to see:

  • The defense making a motion (or asking the court for an order) to have the Arizona federal prosecutors withdraw from the case (for the same reason the federal judges recused themselves)
  • A motion by the defense for a change of venue on the ground that Loughner can't get a fair trial in Arizona
  • A series of psychological exams to see if Loughner is competent to stand trial. If not, he may avoid trial and the death penalty, but maybe not, if medication can make him competent
  • A long, drawn out trial lasting months, perhaps a year, where each side's experts battle over Loughner's mental state, his ability to plan the shootings, etc.

As you can see, there are many factors to take into consideration in this case. Many cases aren't as complicated, but it shows the importance of having a good attorney on your side to help you make decisions that will affect the rest of your life. Take care to find an attorney you work well with and who pays close attention to your own situation.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • In what situations can I plea bargain to avoid harsher penalties?
  • If sentenced to death, what is the appeals process?
  • Can I have both state and federal charges brought against me?
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