On January 8, 2011, a shooting occurred outside of a supermarket, resulting in the deaths of six people and wounding 13 others. The target of this shooting was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was holding a “Congress on Your Corner” event at the store. The man suspected of committing the crime, Jared Lee Loughner, was arrested at the scene after two civilians restrained him. This would begin a complex case that provides a unique peek into the mind of a convicted killer and his mental health.
One of the most controversial parts of the entire case began with the judge deeming Loughner unfit for trial. The court ordered the forced treatment of Loughner’s recently diagnosed schizophrenia while he was being held at a federal prison. After receiving the medications, Loughner’s lawyers advised him to plead guilty, forgoing a jury trial entirely.
This case has raised several questions about Jared Lee Loughner’s mental health, his ability to understand his actions and the trial itself, as well as the morality of forcing a person to receive treatment before he was proven guilty. It’s also one of the few cases where we have an extensive look into a killer’s mind and behaviors leading up to such an event.
Early Warning Signs and Troubling Behavior
Though most people didn’t expect it to result in a tragedy like a mass shooting, many people in Loughner’s life knew that he was mentally unwell—largely due to a recurring pattern of troubling behavior.
In 2006, Loughner arrived at his high school so intoxicated that he needed to be taken to a hospital nearby. A deputy who interviewed the then 17-year-old said the teenager admitted to drinking a bottle of vodka because his father had yelled at him.
Friends of Loughner admitted that he would use marijuana, mushrooms, and Salvia divinorum. Loughner and another friend would also go out into the desert and shoot guns for practice. While these behaviors were not unusual for a group of high schoolers, they were potential warning signs of what was to come.
Loughner developed a passionate interest in politics and government. This would lead him to internet message boards and groups where he would learn about anti-government conspiracy theories, leading to a longstanding distrust of the government and banks.
His favorite books included Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, and Mein Kampf.
He also became intensely focused on lucid dreaming—the idea that you can become aware of and control your dreams. Friends and family said that this eventually came with a detachment from the waking world. Loughner would smile during unusual moments, write stories that others found incomprehensible, and even create videos that attempted to weave intricate, conspiratorial patterns between common events and locations.
Loughner dropped out of school in 2007. He would then experience a long line of rejection and failed prospects. The Army rejected him for failing a drug test in 2008. He struggled to hold a job for more than a few months. He attended a local community college that subsequently suspended him following a pattern of troubling actions. One of the most notable was the creation of a video full of conspiracy theories about the school. Authorities urged his parents to seek a mental health evaluation for Loughner, but they never followed the advice.
As a young adult, Loughner developed an aggressive personality and would offer up his—often misogynistic—opinions about the world, such as women needing to be banned from positions of power. This led to several incidents at a local bank where he would argue with a female manager.
His parents described Loughner as seeing things that weren’t there or having conversations with himself. Loughner also kept journals, written in an indecipherable language.
In the same month that Loughner purchased the firearm he would later use in the shooting—a Glock semi-automatic pistol—he walked into a tattoo shop with a 9-millimeter bullet. He held it up requesting a tattoo of that exact bullet on his right shoulder. He returned a week later for a second of the same tattoo.
Loughner became increasingly reclusive, as well, avoiding former friends and acquaintances. This made his actions in the weeks before the shooting particularly unusual. He took his gun to a house where two of his former friends lived. The pair felt unnerved by his behavior, kicking Loughner out of their home. He left them one bullet before leaving.
On the day of the shooting, he left a cryptic voicemail for a friend he hadn’t contacted in months. All the message included was, “Hey, this is Jared. Um, we had some good times together. Uh, see you later.”
The Tucson Shooting Incident and Its Aftermath
On January 8, 2011, Loughner took a cab to the supermarket and prepared his attack. He struck Gabrielle Giffords in the head and harmed or killed many others in the process.
Two civilians tackled Loughner, pinning him to the ground. Once the police arrived and arrested Loughner, they discovered two 15-round magazines in one of his pockets and a black, four-inch folding knife in another. A third civilian had trapped the shooter’s gun under their foot.
During the arrest, authorities described Loughner as “passive.” He told police that he “was the only person that knew about this,” before allowing them to place him into the patrol car, where he immediately pleaded the Fifth. While taking his mugshot, Loughner smiled.
For several hours, Loughner sat in restraints in a police interview room. Loughner said very little, limiting himself to basic small talk.
Legal Proceedings, Diagnosis, and Mental Health Assessment
Several months later, Loughner pleaded not guilty to 49 charges at the initial hearing for the shooting. Attendees of the trial describe Loughner as smirking throughout the proceedings. His lawyers did not argue Loughner’s ability to stand trial but asked the judge to enter a plea on Loughner’s behalf. Before this, the judge had received letters declaring conflict between Loughner and his attorneys but ignored them and questioned Loughner’s lack of competency.
The judge determined that Loughner couldn’t stand trial and ordered an evaluation at the prison where he was being held. A psychologist and a psychiatrist both agreed his symptoms were consistent with schizophrenia and stated he was not competent enough to stand trial.
After his return to the facility, Loughner refused any medications.
Officials at the prison holding Loughner stated that his behavior was dangerous to himself and those around him, leading to the court allowing involuntary medication. Based on a previous court case, prison administrations have a right to forcibly medicate any individual if officials deem it necessary—even if they are pretrial defendants.
Just three days after the forced medication began, Loughner’s attorneys filed an appeal to cease the treatment. Though an injunction briefly blocked Loughner’s forced medicating, the court allowed it to continue.
A year later, Loughner entered a guilty plea in exchange for avoiding the death penalty at the urging of his lawyers. The judge determined he was able to understand the charges and accepted the plea. He never stood trial in front of a jury.
Lessons and Insights from the Case of Jared Lee Loughner
While this case is undoubtedly an unfortunate story for everyone involved, it does offer many lessons and insights that could help prevent other tragedies like it. Jared Lee Loughner’s mental health has been an ongoing issue for his entire life. He exhibited classic symptoms of schizophrenia for years before the shooting, as well as a recurring pattern of troubling behavior. He was a young man in need of treatment that he did not receive.
Improving access to mental health assessments and encouraging those who may need care to seek out professional help is key.
The Loughner case also raises the ethical concerns of forcibly medicating someone before they are found guilty of their actions in a trial. Victims of events like these deserve an answer and resolution in a court of law. However, by medicating Loughner without his consent, many mental health advocates argue that his human rights were violated. Many legal experts argue that treatments like these—if they must occur—should take place in a hospital, not a detention facility.
Additionally, some people worry that the increased attention given to this case, due to it involving a member of the government, spurred the desire for a quick resolution. This could have encouraged the decision to forcibly treat Loughner without enough consideration of his rights or the potential precedent it would set.
Jared Lee Loughner’s diagnosis and the circumstances of his life will likely continue to be the subject of many legal and medical arguments for many years to come.
As is often the case with mental health issues, these events present difficult questions without easy answers.