Federal prosecutors on Friday unsealed an expanded 49-count indictment against Tucson shooting rampage suspect Jared Lee Loughner, setting in motion the formal process of deciding whether to seek the death penalty.
The latest indictment charges Loughner with first-degree murder of a federal employee in the deaths of a federal judge and an aid to U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, gravely wounded in the attack at a meet-and-greet event for her constituents.
Loughner, 22, also is charged with causing the deaths of four other people who were “participants at a federally provided activity” when they were gunned down at the January 8 event.
Those charges, as well as additional counts of first-degree murder through the use of a firearm, are all capital offenses, and their inclusion starts a formal review process at the U.S. Department of Justice of deciding whether to seek the death penalty or life in prison for Loughner.
“This indictment involves potential death-penalty charges, and department rules require us to pursue a deliberate and thorough process,” Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke said in a statement.
Loughner, a college dropout who investigators said had a history of mental problems, is accused of opening fire on Giffords and a crowd of bystanders attending a “Congress on Your Corner” event outside a grocery story.
Six people were killed and 13 others wounded, including Giffords, who was shot through the head at close range and remains hospitalized at a rehabilitation center in Houston.
Loughner, who is being held in federal custody without bail, is scheduled to appear for arraignment on the new charges at a hearing set for next Wednesday in Tucson.
The latest charges expand on an indictment returned in January accusing Loughner of attempting to assassinate Giffords — described by authorities as his primary target — and the attempted murder of two staff members who were wounded.
Loughner pleaded not guilty to those charges in January.
The new indictment incorporates those charges and a criminal complaint filed the day after the shooting which included murder charges for deaths of Judge John Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, and Gabe Zimmerman, the congresswoman’s director of community outreach.
The indictment frees the government from the need to present its case to a judge in a preliminary hearing in order to proceed to trial.
Copyright © 2011 Reuters