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Robert David Jaffee

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Appeals Court Is Right to Medicate Loughner

Posted: 03/ 8/2012 5:12 pm

Jared Loughner, the suspect in last year's massacre in Tucson, Ariz., that left 6 dead and 13 wounded, must be forced to take his antipsychotic medication, according to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled 2-1 that Loughner, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has at times behaved violently since his arrest, needs to continue taking his medication.

Since the mass shooting on January 8, 2011, a rampage whose victims include former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is recuperating from severe trauma to her brain, Loughner has been found incompetent to stand trial. However, when he has been forced to take psychotropic medication, his condition has improved.

Chances are that if Loughner continues to take his medication, he will indeed be judged fit to stand trial.

Loughner's lawyers no doubt know that most schizophrenics respond favorably enough to medication that they are able to comport themselves in a courtroom and understand the charges against them. That his attorneys have tried to prevent him from having to take his medication is a cynical ploy to save him from the justice that awaits him. According to the L.A. Times, Loughner's attorneys argued before the appeals court that their client had the right to "refuse drugs he believed could harm or kill him."

But psychotropic medication is not going to harm or kill Loughner. If anything, psychotropic medication will make him healthier.

I say this as one who himself was once diagnosed with schizophrenia. As I have written at length, I have never been violent nor a threat to anyone but myself. Yet I too was forced to take my antipsychotic medication in late January of 1999, a time when I was overcome with delusions that I was being framed for murders across the nation.

The medication stabilized me, probably saved my life, and I left the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute after my 72-hour hold expired.

To this day, I take antipsychotic medication, Abilify, as well as Zoloft, an antidepressant.

And I am not the only one who has benefited from taking antipsychotic medication, which has helped many tame their psychosis. I have met numerous people diagnosed with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, and the vast majority of them are law-abiding citizens who take their medication and are able to understand basic principles of law and medicine. It is true that some have gained weight or experienced other side effects from their medication, such as fatigue or sexual dysfunction. But these side effects do not affect all people, and they do not constitute even a remote threat to the life of the consumer of the medication.

So, any argument that antipsychotic medication will harm or kill Loughner is completely specious. At core, Loughner's attorneys fear something else; they fear that if their client stands trial, he may be subjected to the death penalty.

While I do not condone the death penalty, the victims of the shooting, the city of Tucson and the country all need to heal. Nothing will bring back the 6 who were murdered, and nothing will undo the trauma to the 13 who were wounded, all of whom face daunting challenges to recovery.

Still, Loughner should be forced to stand trial, and the best way to ensure that is to keep him on his meds.

In the circuit court's majority decision, Judges J. Clifford Wallace and Jay S. Bybee argued that Loughner must take his medication due to "his dangerousness to himself and others," a standard invoked by the psychiatrists at the prison medical center in Springfield, Mo., where Loughner is being held. The court determined that Loughner's "rights are limited by the facility's legitimate goals and policies... and may be judged by the same standard as convicted detainees."

True, Loughner has been convicted of nothing at this time, but the appellate panel made the correct decision here since Loughner has at times been violent in the prison and in the courtroom when he has not been on his medication. As a result of the ruling, Loughner will stay on his meds through at least early June, when his stay at the federal prison hospital is scheduled to end. His hospitalization was extended last month by U.S. District Court Judge Larry A. Burns, who pointed out that Loughner had shown signs of behavioral improvement during the preceding eight months of his stay at the Missouri facility.

Let us hope that when he is released from the hospital in June, Loughner will be judged fit to stand trial. Only then can there be any glimmer of justice for the victims of the massacre.