As the Justice Department decides whether to seek the death penalty for Jared Lee Loughner, the brutality of the Tucson shooting may reinvigorate US support for capital punishment.
Jared Lee Loughner, the man accused of killing six people and wounding 14 others outside a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store, pleaded not guilty Monday to the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the attempted murder of two of her aides.
But as Mr. Loughner prepared for the first time to answer the government's initial charges against him, an inescapable question surrounded the Phoenix courtroom: If convicted, will the troubled 22- year-old pay with his life?
The shooting at Ms. Giffords' meet-and-greet function sparked debate about the nature of political discourse in the US and raised questions about gun rights and gaps in the mental health system. But the cold and apparently calculated shooting also forced many Americans to take a deeper look at whether individuals like Loughner are true aberrations or, in fact, products of America's unique, and at times alienating, social contract.
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As Loughner Monday began a legal journey that could take years to complete, those reactions may feed into a broader debate about the death penalty, which has faced increasing scrutiny by the courts, legislators and the American people in the last decade.
Whereas public opinion and to a certain extent legislation has shown increasing discomfort with the death penalty, the Tucson shooting "might be a turning point ... where it offers a pretty good argument that some crimes are just so heinous that they deserve that kind of penalty," says University of Buffalo professor David Schmid, author of "Natural Born Celebrities: Serial killers in American culture."
But there's a darker side to the impulse for vengeance, highlighted by a vigorous debate around whether vitriol in the public square motivated Loughner.
Politics aside, Loughner's reported alienation and disfranchisement from his friends and community, Professor Schmid adds, is recognizable to many people as a parable of despair and rootlessness that gnaw at the edges of the American experiment. "The way in which someone like Loughner points to the emptiness of heart of a lot of communities is what makes him so troubling," Schmid says. "Part of the reason that people assert so vigorously that he's an aberration is that we know he's not."
Loughner made an initial court appearance on Jan. 10, two days after the shooting, where federal prosecutors laid out a series of charges in order for a judge to determine whether or not Loughner could be released on bond, which was denied. At that time, Loughner was asked if he understood the charges, but was not required to enter a plea.
Loughner has yet to be indicted on two of those initial murder charges - for allegedly shooting to death federal Judge John Roll and Gabe Zimmerman, a Giffords aide. The federal murder charges are capital crimes, but before those indictments are sought, the US Justice Department will have to review - and Attorney General Eric Holder will have to approve - a death penalty demand. …