TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Jared Lee Loughner agreed Tuesday to spend the rest of his life in prison, accepting that he went on a deadly shooting rampage at an Arizona political gathering and avoiding the prospect of a trial that might have brought him the death penalty.
His plea came after a federal judge found that months of psychiatric treatment made Loughner able to understand charges that he killed six people and wounded 13 others, including his intended target, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Loughner appeared relaxed and focused throughout the two-hour hearing, much of it devoted to a court-appointed psychologist's account of his normal childhood, his teenage depression, his descent into schizophrenia as a young adult and his gradual recovery in prison to the point that she felt he was competent to face charges.
The psychologist and judge did most of the talking, as Loughner looked at them intently and leaned slightly forward with no expression, his arms crossed over his chest. He appeared to show emotion only once — smiling and nodding when the psychologist, Christina Pietz, reported that he formed a special bond with one of the guards at the Springfield, Mo., prison where he has been held.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns noted Loughner's reaction to the prison guard comment when explaining his decision to declare him competent. He said Loughner was "tracking" the day's proceedings well and appeared to be assisting his attorneys in his defense, a break from the past.
"He's a different person in his appearance and his affect than the first time I laid eyes on him," Burns said.
During the hearing, Loughner didn't exchange words with his attorneys or glance around the courtroom, which was packed with victims. His parents, who observed from a back row, sobbed and embraced after he walked out looking frail on his feet and gazing straight ahead.
Loughner pleaded guilty to 19 counts, including attempted assassination of a member of Congress, murder and attempted murder of federal employees, and causing death and injury at a federally provided activity. As part of the agreement, the federal government dropped 30 other counts.
"I plead guilty," Loughner said repeatedly in a baritone voice as Burns listed each count.
His hair closely cropped, Loughner was not the smiling, bald-headed suspect captured in a mug shot soon after the January 2011 shooting. His demeanor was a complete turnaround from a May 2011 courtroom outburst that prompted Burns to declare him incompetent.
The prosecution and defense seemed eager to seal the agreement, a departure from previous marathon hearings. Judy Clarke, Loughner's lead attorney, gently pointed Loughner through a copy of the plea agreement on the table in front of him as the judge went through it. She declined to ask the psychologist any questions.
The plea agreement calls for a sentence of seven consecutive life terms followed by 140 years in prison, according to federal officials. Loughner, who will be sentenced Nov. 15, is ineligible for parole.
John Leonardo, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, called the agreement a "just and appropriate resolution."
"I hope that today's resolution of this case will help the victims, their families, and the entire Tucson community take another step forward in the process of healing and recovering from this sad and tragic event," he said.
The outcome was welcomed by some victims, including Giffords herself, as a way to move on.
"The pain and loss caused by the events of Jan. 8, 2011, are incalculable," Giffords said in a joint statement with her husband, Mark Kelly. "Avoiding a trial will allow us — and we hope the whole Southern Arizona community — to continue with our recovery."
Ron Barber, a former Giffords staffer who was wounded in the attack and later won election to her seat after she stepped down, said he hoped the plea will help the victims and their families "move forward and continue our healing process."