Since last week’s Tuscon, Arizona shooting that left six dead and 14 injured—including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords—many have been left reeling, wondering how such events could have happened, and how to move forward. As the case against suspect Jared Lee Loughner ramps up, legal professionals are dealing with the same questions, especially as they pertain to court proceedings. Early on Thursday, those following the trial had at least one question cleared up: San Diego federal judge Larry A. Burns will be the one hearing Loughner’s case.
First, some background on the federal case. When it comes to violent crimes like assault and murder, the vast majority of cases are tried in state courts. While Loughner’s January 8th shooting spree did kill and injure civilians, he also killed two federal employees and attempted to kill three others. Under Title 18 of the United States Code, this means Loughner faces federal charges of murder and attempted murder. The state charges have yet to come forth, since state and federal agencies are still working out whether or not the trials will be concurrent.
While the federal case is already underway, the road is hardly smooth. For example, no Arizona defense lawyers would take up Loughner’s defense. This could end up helping Loughner, as famed defense attorney Judy Clarke is now representing him. Clarke, who serves on the federal death penalty resource counsel and whose previous client list includes Zacharias Moussaoui and the Unabomber, objected to the use of any Arizona federal trial judge because of they all worked with one of the victims, Chief Arizona District Judge John. M. Roll. If Roll had not been killed, he would likely have presided over the trial. Already, on the same day of the attacks, all Tucson-based judges recused themselves.
As a result, on January 12th all federal trial judges in Arizona were recused from the case, and Alex Kosinski, Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit, selected San Diego Federal Judge Larry A. Burns to preside over the trial. With Kosinski’s decision, the major playors (judge, prosecutor and defense attorney) have all now been decided, yet there’s still the question of where the trial will take place.
In the appointment letter, Kosinki designates Burns to “perform the duties of United States District Judge temporarily for the District of Arizona for the specific case United States of America v. Jared Lee Loughner.” Ordinarily, Pheonix, as the state capital, would be the logical place to hold the trial, but many legal commentators expect Clarke to file a change of venue motion as a result of the intense publicity surrounding the shootings. It’s notoriously difficult to change a trial venue, but there is precedent: “Such a motion was granted in the criminal case of Timothy McVeigh, the mastermind behind the Oklahoma City bombing in 1994,” says Ashby Jones of WSJ Law Blog.
In the mean time, we are all waiting to see whether Attorney General Eric Holder decides to make this a capital case (making Loughner eligible for the death penalty). Many think that an insanity plea is Loughner’s only option, but this could be difficult to establish. Courts have cracked down on the insanity defense over the years, and even if Loughner is clinically diagnosed with a mental disorder, he would still have to voluntarily enter the plea.
The next hearing will be on January 24th.
- California Federal Judge to Preside Over Loughner Case (businessweek.com)
- Early Legal Issue: Where to Try Case (online.wsj.com)
- Legal Strategy Could Hinge on Mental Assessment (nytimes.com)