Gunman who shot Gabrielle Giffords handed life sentence

Ex-congresswoman and husband face Loughner in court for first time since shooting massacre left six dead and wounded 12 in Arizona in 2011

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 3:00am

Mark Kelly stared at the young man who, nearly two years ago, brought a gun to a Tucson plaza in the US state of Arizona and shot Kelly's wife in the head and killed six people.

The attack left Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman, partially blind, unable to use her right arm and struggling to piece together sentences, Kelly told a federal judge on Thursday during the gunman's sentencing. Jared Lee Loughner also wounded a dozen more outside a grocery store where Giffords had been shaking hands with constituents.

"You tried to create for all of us a world as dark and evil as your own. But know this, and remember it always: you failed," Kelly said. As he spoke, Giffords stood silently next to him, a symbol of resilience.

Loughner, 24, was sentenced on Thursday to life in prison without parole for the rampage. US District Judge Larry Burns said that, although Loughner has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, he understood the potential consequences of the attack and even searched online for information about the death penalty beforehand. Prosecutors decided not to seek a death sentence at the behest of the survivors and the families of those killed, said assistant US Attorney Wallace Kleindienst, according to media accounts. "What you did was wrong," Kleindienst said, "but they felt it wasn't right to execute a man with a mental illness."

On a blue-skied morning on January 8 last year, Loughner fired nearly three dozen shots into a crowd waiting to meet the Democratic congresswoman at a meet-and-greet in Tucson. Amid the chaos, passers-by wrestled Loughner to the ground. After the shooting, Loughner was sent to a federal prison hospital and underwent forcible psychotropic drug treatments.

"My children will forever remember the smell of blood everywhere," Mary Reed, who was shot in the arm that day, told the judge. "Mr Loughner introduced my children to something sinister and evil."

A gravely wounded Giffords resigned from Congress earlier this year, after making an emotional public appearance in Tucson exactly one year after the rampage. When Giffords hoisted her right hand to her heart and recited the Pledge of Allegiance in a clear, strong voice, the crowd of thousands wept and cheered.

Giffords was succeeded by Ron Barber, who also was wounded in the shooting, but saved, in part, by a bystander who staunched the bleeding with her bare hands. He was trailing in a battle for re-election that remained too close to call.

"I hold no hatred for you, but I am very angry and sick at heart about what you have done, and the hurt you have caused all of us," Barber said, according to accounts of the hearing. "You now must bear this burden and never again see the outside of a prison."

During Thursday's hearing and at a news conference that followed, survivors of the shooting recounted the carnage they witnessed and the psychological toll it had taken on them. Some also lobbied for more stringent gun laws and better mental health care. Kelly, in particular, referred to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and state lawmakers as "feckless" on the issue of gun control.

"We have a political class that is afraid to do something as simple as have a meaningful debate about our gun laws and how they are being enforced," Kelly said.

The killer's prison psychologist previously testified that, after months of medication, Loughner now understands what he did and feels remorse, particularly over gunning down nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. "I especially cry about the child," Loughner said, according to the psychologist.

Also killed in the rampage were federal Judge John Roll, Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard and Dorothy Morris.

The hearing marked the first time since the shooting that Giffords has been face-to-face with Loughner.

When it was their turn to confront the shooter, Kelly and Giffords stood and looked directly at him. Loughner, who for months refused to believe Giffords had survived the shooting, returned the couple's gaze.

"Mr Loughner, you may have put a bullet through her head, but you haven't put a dent in her spirit and her commitment to make the world a better place," Kelly said.