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.
Arizona shooting: Seven times politics turned to threats or
violence last year
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
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. …