Jared Lee Loughner, who shot former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head, killed six and wounded 12 others in a 2011 Tucson rampage, was sentenced to life in prison without parole after listening to some of his victims berate him for damaging their lives.
Loughner, now 24, received the sentence in a Tucson federal court after a series of emotional confrontations. After one woman spoke about the pain of losing her husband to Loughner’s bullet, Giffords turned to her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, and kissed him on the head, according to reports from journalists inside the courtroom.
When it was their turn to confront the shooter, Kelly and Giffords stood and looked directly at Loughner. It was the first time that Giffords has been face-to-face with Loughner. The defendant returned the couple’s gaze as Kelly explained how the bullet had changed his wife’s life, but couldn’t damage her spirit.
“Gabby would trade her own life for one you took on that day,” Kelly said of his wife, whose efforts to recover have inspired many people across the nation. “Every day is a continuous struggle to do the things she was once so very good at.”
“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, according to media reports.
“You tried to create for all of us a world as dark and evil as your own,” said the former astronaut as he looked at Loughner. “But know this, and remember it always: You failed.
“You have decades upon decades to contemplate what you did. But after today, after this moment, here and now, Gabby and I are done thinking about you.”
Giffords, who did not speak, kissed Kelly when he finished. Then he took her hand and they walked away, the former lawmaker limping.
Loughner, who wore a dark brown shirt with a tie, did not speak at his sentencing.
The scene sparked tears among many in the courtroom, according to journalists who tweeted from the scene. But it was just one of many emotional moments as the federal phase of the case came to a formal, and negotiated, end.
Giffords was making a routine political appearance at a supermarket parking lot in her Tucson district on the morning of Jan. 8, 2011, when Loughner opened fire.
Amid the chaos of the shots, passers-by wrestled Loughner to the ground. Before he was subdued, he had fired 31 more shots, six fatal.
The nation waited as doctors worked to save Giffords’ life in what has been described as a miraculous recovery. She then turned to her long-term and widely followed rehabilitation. Her first visit to Congress before stepping down from office led to a prolonged ovation from her colleagues.
The facts in the case were never in doubt. Loughner was the only suspect. The key issue focused on whether he would avoid the death penalty because of his mental health. After the shooting, Loughner was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent forcible psychotropic drug treatments.
It was after those treatments that Loughner realized that he had only wounded Giffords, whom he saw as the personification of a government the shooter said he hated, prosecutor Wallace Kleindienst said in his comments to the court.
U.S. District Court Judge Larry A. Burns, who presided over the proceedings, had previously ruled that Loughner was capable of understanding the charges against him. This paved the way for a plea agreement designed to ensure that Loughner would spend the rest of his life in prison without possibility of parole. Three months ago, Loughner pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges. The agreement includes the dismissal of 30 other charges and a sentence of seven consecutive life terms, followed by 140 years in prison.
“The evidence clearly shows that he knew what he was doing, despite his mental illness,” Burns said in handing down the sentence. He called the length of the sentence justified.
Susan Hileman, one of the victims, shook as she addressed the court.
“We’ve been told about your demons, about the illness that skewed your thinking,” said Hileman, adding, “It’s all true. ... It’s not enough.”
“You pointed a weapon and shot me three times,” she said, staring directly at Loughner. He looked back at her. “And now I walk out of this courtroom and into the rest of my life and I won’t think of you again.”
Loughner’s mother Amy, sitting in the courtroom, wiped tears from eyes.
“There is no way to make sense of those senseless acts,” said another of the wounded, Rep. Ron Barber, a former top aide to Giffords who replaced his boss in Congress. “Our lives are forever changed.”