US shootings suspect to appear in court

2011-01-10 10:00
Tucson - A 22-year-old man charged with trying to assassinate US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by shooting her in the head during a bloody rampage that killed six people and wounded 14 is due to appear in court on Monday on charges of murder and attempted murder.

Doctors are optimistic that Giffords will recover after undergoing emergency brain surgery, but she remained in critical condition in a Tucson hospital.

The shooting spree in Tucson on Saturday has fuelled debate about extreme political rhetoric in the United States after an acrimonious campaign for congressional elections in November.

The US government has charged the suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted assassination of a member of Congress and two other counts of attempted murder.

President Barack Obama called on Americans to observe a moment of silence on Monday to commemorate the victims of the shooting.

FBI Director Robert Mueller cautioned public officials to be on alert, but said there was no information to suggest a further specific threat.

Mueller said "hate speech and other inciteful speech" presented a challenge to law enforcement officials, especially when it resulted in "lone wolves" undertaking attacks.

Six killed

Loughner was due to appear in court in Phoenix on Monday, the Justice Department said,, as reports emerged of a troubled man who had been asked to leave a local college for disruptive behaviour.

He will be represented in court by Judy Clarke, the lawyer who defended Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, the federal defenders' office said. "Our understanding is that Judy Clarke is who is assigned to the case and she has accepted," said Manny Tarango, a spokesperson for the US Attorney in Phoenix.

Investigators said they had found an envelope at Loughner's residence with the handwritten phrases "I planned ahead" and "My assassination", along with the name "Giffords" and what appeared to be Loughner's signature.

The suspect opened fire with a semi-automatic Glock pistol while the Democratic congresswoman was attending a political meeting in a supermarket parking lot. US federal judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl were among the six people killed.

Giffords, a 40-year-old Democrat, was in critical condition after surgery, but was able to follow simple commands, such as holding up two fingers when asked, doctors at University Medical Centre in Tucson said.

A single bullet travelled the length of her brain on the left side, hitting an area that controls speech. Given the devastating wound, doctors said they were uncertain about the extent of brain damage she may have suffered.

She has been put into a pharmaceutical coma but was being awakened frequently to check her progress.

Rare political shooting

"There are obvious areas of our brain that are less tolerant to intrusion," said Dr Michael Lemole. "I don't want to go down the speculation road but at the same time we're cautiously optimistic."

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said a wounded woman, identified by CNN as Patricia Maisch, had grabbed away an ammunition magazine from the gunman as he tried to reload after shooting into the crowd. He managed to fit in another magazine but it jammed and he was tackled by two men.

Gun violence is common in the United States but political shootings are rare and many in Washington were shocked.

Some Democrats said a climate of political vitriol might have played a role. "We are in a dark place in this country right now and the atmospheric condition is toxic," Democratic Representative Emanuel Cleaver told NBC's Meet the Press programme.

But Jon Kyl, a Republican senator from Arizona, cautioned against a "rush to speculate".

"We really don't know what motivated this young person, except to know he was very mentally unstable," Kyl said on the Face the Nation show on CBS.

Rejected by US army

Investigators were looking at a rambling internet manifesto left by Loughner or someone writing under that name. There was no coherent theme to the writing, which accused the government of mind control and demanded a new currency.

Loughner withdrew from Pima Community College in October 2010 after several encounters with campus police, college officials said. He was told to obtain a mental health clearance if he wished to return to school to show his attendance would not present a danger to himself or others.

The US Army confirmed that Loughner attempted to enlist in December 2008 but was rejected for unspecified reasons.

Lawmakers in Washington put off their agenda for this week, including a vote on the repeal of Obama's contentious healthcare overhaul.

The new Congress convened last week after the November 2 elections in which the Republican Party won control of the House and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate.

Giffords had warned that the heated rhetoric had prompted violent threats against her and vandalism at her office. Mueller said the suspect had attended a public event held by Giffords in 2007.

In an interview last year with MSNBC, Giffords cited a map of electoral targets put out by Sarah Palin, a Republican former Alaska governor and prominent conservative, that had each marked by the crosshairs of a rifle sight.

After the shooting, the graphic was removed from Palin's website and she offered condolences on a posting on Facebook.

Giffords, married to Nasa astronaut Navy Captain Mark Kelly, is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. She narrowly defeated a conservative opponent and was one of the few Democrats to survive the Republican sweep in swing districts in November's elections.

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