By Joseph Schuman
SAN DIEGO--A federal judge has granted prison doctors four more months to attempt to restore the mental competency of the man charged with a deadly shooting spree in Arizona that gravely wounded then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last year.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns granted on Monday a request by prosecutors to extend Jared Loughner's confinement in a prison hospital in Missouri, citing a report by the accused gunman's psychologist that he was making "measureable progress" in treatment aimed at allowing him to eventually stand trial.
But Burns, in a 30-minute hearing in San Diego that Loughner did not attend, said that Loughner's psychologist, Christina Pietz, remained "convinced that he's not there yet."
The judge ordered Pietz to submit a new report to him on Loughner's condition by May 24, and set another court hearing for the following month to review his status.
Burns also ordered staff at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons psychiatric hospital to notify him immediately if they feel that Loughner has regained his mental fitness anytime before then, so that an expedited competency hearing can be scheduled.
Loughner stands accused of opening fire with a semiautomatic pistol on a crowd gathered outside a Tucson supermarket in January 2011 for a public event held by Giffords for her constituents.
Six people were killed and 13 others were wounded, including Giffords, who suffered a head wound at close range and recently resigned her seat on Capitol Hill after a year of rehabilitation.
Loughner has pleaded not guilty to 49 criminal charges, including multiple counts of first-degree murder and the attempted assassination of Giffords.
Burns declared him mentally incompetent for trial at a hearing last May, citing the conclusions of two medical experts who said he suffered from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
Since then, Loughner's defense team has repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought to bar doctors from forcibly medicating the 23-year-old college dropout with anti-psychotic drugs.
In September, Burns granted a government request to keep Loughner detained at the Missouri facility an additional four months for more treatment aimed at restoring his mental fitness. Prosecutors had sought eight months. His current commitment time at the facility had been set to expire on Wednesday.
In the meantime, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has been considering whether Burns acted properly in extending Loughner's time in the prison hospital in the first place.
(Reporting by Joseph Schuman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)
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