It appears the young man who went on a killing spree in Tucson last year now wants to plead guilty for his actions. A federal judge handling the case has scheduled a status conference for this Tuesday during which Jared Loughner will have the opportunity to enter a guilty plea to both murder and attempted murder. Loughner will have a court-appointed psychiatrist testify. The fact that he is competent to enter a plea is crucial to the case.

Loughner is being held for his involvement in the massacre that killed six people and injured 13, including, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Assuming this is the plea Loughner decides to enter, acceptance of that plea is not automatic. The judge hearing the case must first agree the defendant is mentally competent before allowing him to offer the plea. Per federal court rules, a judge must be satisfied that a guilty plea is both knowing and voluntary. That’s going to require the judge to ask Loughner a series of questions in open court to make certain he has the capacity to understand what a guilty plea means. This includes the fact that Loughner would concede his appeal rights.

Loughner had previously pleaded not guilty to 49 federal charges stemming from the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting outside a Tucson supermarket where Giffords was holding a meet-and-greet with constituents. A U.S. District Judge formerly ruled that Loughner wasn’t psychologically fit to stand trial, but that he could eventually be made ready for trial after treatment. An Arizona college that Loughner attended released numerous emails about him that painted a picture of a struggling student with emotional problems who disturbed others with his strange behavior. Experts have concluded that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, and prison officials in Missouri, where Loughner has been held, have forcibly medicated him with psychotropic drugs.

Even though psychologists have said Loughner’s condition is improving, his lawyers have vigorously fought the government’s efforts to medicate him. At one point, a federal appeals court halted the forced medication, but resumed it once mental health experts at the prison concluded that Loughner’s condition was deteriorating further.

Loughner continues to receive treatment for mental illnesses at a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility, where he will remain until a judge decides he is fit to stand trial. The possible plea deal would send him to prison for the rest of his life. Should Loughner ultimately choose to stand trial he could face the death penalty if convicted. Meanwhile, if the judge decides to accept the guilty plea, it would take yet another hearing before a final sentence will be imposed.

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