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Expected Loughner plea deal not certain yet

Associated Press Modified: August 6, 2012 at 6:01 pm •  Published: August 6, 2012

PHOENIX (AP) — Reaching a plea agreement for the suspect in the deadly Tucson, Ariz., mass shooting is just one step.

On Tuesday, defense attorneys and prosecutors will need to accomplish the next: persuade U.S. District Court Judge Larry A. Burns that Jared Lee Loughner, who has been forcibly medicated at a federal prison, is no longer mentally unfit for trial.

A court-appointed psychiatrist is expected to testify that Loughner is competent to enter a plea.

If Burns agrees that Loughner is competent, as legal experts expect, a formal change of plea hearing will follow. That's when those in the court will hear from the 23-year-old college dropout at length for the first time, as the judge questions him about the agreement and changing his plea to guilty.

Burns may ask Loughner to recite his actions in his own words, but either his lawyer or the federal prosecutor could just read the facts of the January 2011 shooting spree at a Tucson supermarket as then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords held a meet-and-greet with constituents.

Either way, Loughner will be asked to admit that he shot and killed six people, including the top federal judge in Arizona, and wounded 13 others, including Giffords. He'll need to convince Burns he understands what is going on, what he's doing and what he did.

Loughner could break down, change his mind about pleading guilty or show so little understanding of what he's doing that Burns could change his mind about the competency and reject the plea, lawyers not involved in the case said Monday.

"The fact that there is this planned change of plea is no guarantee that it will go forward," said Paul Charlton, a former U.S. Attorney for Arizona. "There are any number of things that would happen that would either cause it to be removed from the calendar or not go forward at all."

Loughner was flown Monday from a medical facility in Missouri to Tucson, authorities said. Experts have concluded that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, and prison officials have forcibly medicated him with psychotropic drugs for more than a year.

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