TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The pain was palpable, measured in silent stares in the courtroom between an emotionless murderer and wounded former congresswoman who looked her attempted killer in the eyes for the first time since he shot her in the head.
Gabrielle Giffords limped to the podium Thursday, her astronaut husband by her side, inside a packed Tucson courtroom before a judge ordered Jared Lee Loughner to spend the rest of his life in prison.
It was the first time since the January 2011 shooting rampage that his victims would get a chance to speak their minds directly to him. Loughner sat silent, but appeared to absorb every word, his blank gaze fixed on each victim as they scolded him, told stories of their pain and loss and recounted those horrific moments when gunfire changed their lives forever.
“You killed six innocent people,” said Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly. “Her life has been forever changed. Plans she had for our family and her career have been immeasurably altered. … Every day is a continuous struggle to do those things she once was so good at.”
Giffords, wearing a black brace around her torso, looked closely at the 24-year-old Loughner for several minutes without uttering a word.
Kelly told NBC’s “Today” show on Friday that he felt like Loughner was definitely listening to what he had to say, and “wasn’t really happy at points.”
“I almost felt like he and Gabby were having quite the staring contest,” he said.
Loughner was ordered to serve seven consecutive life sentences, plus 140 years in federal prison for the shootings that killed six people and wounded 13 as Giffords met with constituents in a Tucson shopping plaza. Giffords was left partially blind with a paralyzed right arm and brain injury.
Loughner’s guilty plea enables him to avoid a federal death sentence, and state prosecutors said they would not file separate charges, largely to spare the victims continued pain, and given that Loughner will never see freedom again.
The sentence marked the end of a nearly two-year-long saga in which Loughner, who has schizophrenia, was forcibly medicated at a Missouri prison medical facility so he could be competent to understand the charges against him. U.S. District Judge Larry Burns recommended Thursday that he remain there indefinitely, and continue to be medicated, but it’s up to federal prison officials where he will ultimately be incarcerated.
Some victims, including Giffords, welcomed the plea deal as a way to move on. It spared victims and their families from having to go through a potentially lengthy and traumatic trial.
At the hearing, Loughner looked nothing like the smiling bald man with a bruise around his eye seen in the mug shot taken after the shooting. He had closely cropped brown hair and was wearing dress pants, shirt and tie.
One by one, his victims approached the podium, then turned toward Loughner who sat at a table with his defense attorneys.
Loughner declined to speak on his own behalf.
Mavy Stoddard, who was shot three times and cradled her dying husband, 76-year-old Dorwin Stoddard, in her arms as he lay bleeding after shielding her from gunfire, was among those who spoke.
“You took away my life, my love and my reason for living,” Stoddard said.
“I am so lonesome, hate living without him,” she added, her voice cracking. Staring down at Loughner, she said, “We will never let you win. You will not take our spirit.”
Susan Hileman, who was shot three times while trying to save her 9-year-old neighbor, shook as she spoke.
“We’ve been told about your demons, about the illness that skewed your thinking,” she said. “Your parents, your schools, your community, they all failed you. It’s all true. It’s not enough.”
“You pointed a weapon and shot me three times,” she added.
Before the attack, officials at Pima Community College had suspended Loughner over safety concerns after his classroom disruptions. They told him that if he wanted to return, he would have to get a mental health clearance. Loughner dropped out.
The court-appointed psychologist who treated him had warned that although Loughner was competent to plead guilty, he remained severely mentally ill and his condition could deteriorate under the stress of a trial.
Legal experts had predicted that the only viable defense for Loughner was insanity, but his attorneys never mounted it.
Given Loughner’s planning for the attack, the fact that he had researched Giffords and famous assassins prior to the shooting, purchased a gun, a high-capacity pistol magazine and ear plugs, then laid in wait for the congresswoman, Judge Burns noted such a defense “would not have washed.”
Rep. Ron Barber, a former Giffords staffer who won election to her seat when she stepped down, also stared down Loughner from the podium, at times almost scolding the confessed shooter.
“I am very angry and am sick of heart about what you have done and the hurt you have caused to all of us,” said Barber, who was shot in the cheek and thigh as he stood with Giffords on the day of the rampage. “And now you must pay the price. You must pay the price for the terror, injuries and deaths you caused.”
Prosecutor Wallace Kleindienst spoke for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.
He told the story of 79-year-old Phyllis Schneck. She and her husband bought a winter condo in Tucson and loved the area. He died in in 2007, but she kept coming back, and while she wasn’t registered to vote in Arizona, she wanted to meet the congresswoman.
“She drove to the Safeway alone, and she died alone on that concrete walkway,” Kleindienst said. “Her family never got the chance to tell her they loved her one last time.”
While the day was about resolution for all the victims, it was Giffords whom all eyes were upon. She and her husband sat several rows behind the prosecutors’ table, across the room from Loughner.
Kelly put his arm around her. She leaned into him. He helped her to the podium as she shuffled through the courtroom.
“Mr. Loughner,” Kelly said, “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 then gingerly kissed his wife. He grabbed her hand, and the two walked silently back to their seats.
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