For those of us who followed the news of the tragic shooting in Arizona, it is probably no surprise that U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns declared the suspect, Jared Loughner, incompetent to stand trial. Mr. Loughner was expelled from community college last fall because of his disturbing outbursts in class. His Facebook page revealed a man who was wrestling mightily with paranoid delusions.
So Judge Burns, with the input of two mental health professionals who evaluated Mr. Loughner extensively, declared Jared Loughner not fit to stand trial.
What does this decision mean? And, should we be upset that justice will not be done to the lone gunman who killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and twelve others?
The ruling of the judge that Jared Loughner is incompetent to stand trial means that he does not have a rational understanding of the criminal proceedings against him, and is unable to participate in his defense. The court committed Mr. Loughner to a mental hospital. In four months, it will reassess whether he is competent to stand trial. If he still is not, the court will likely direct periodic reevaluations.
Rest assured that being declared incompetent to stand trial is not a ticket for a defendant to go home or to get away with committing criminal offenses. Even if Mr. Loughner is never found competent to stand trial, he will still remain in civil protective custody i.e. – a mental health hospital. The difference between civil commitment and prosecution and supervision by criminal authority represents a moral position we take about the treatment of the mentally ill. But Jared Loughner will not assault another person. He will never walk our streets again.