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 sparing the victims a lengthy, possibly traumatic death-penalty trial.
His plea came soon after a federal judge found that months of psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia made Loughner able to understand charges that he killed six people and wounded 13 others, including his intended target, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
"I plead guilty," the 23-year-old college dropout said.
His hair closely cropped, Loughner was not the smiling, baldheaded suspect captured in a mugshot soon after the January 2011 shooting.
Wearing khakis, Loughner sat quietly throughout the hearing and smiled at one point when a psychologist testifying about his competence remarked that he had bonded with one of the federal prison guards.
After the hearing, Loughner's parents cried and embraced. The victims mostly just watched without expression.
"He's a different person in his appearance and his affect than the first time I laid eyes on him," said Judge Larry A. Burns, who then accepted the plea agreement and added that he found it to be in the best interest of everyone involved.
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."
"I truly believe that justice was done today," he said after the hearing. "It is important to me that this individual never again is in a position in which he can cause harm to anyone else."
Susan Hileman, who accompanied slain 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green to the gathering outside a supermarket and was wounded in the attack, said nothing would return her life to what it was before the shooting.
"This is so sad —a 23-year-old who's going to spend the rest of his life in a box. I feel empty. What I want, I can't have," she said, adding that she was relieved the case ended. Still, "it's like a Band-Aid that keeps getting ripped off."
Experts had concluded that Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, and officials at a federal prison have forcibly medicated him with psychotropic drugs for more than a year.
Court-appointed psychologist Christina Pietz testified for an hour about how she believes Loughner became competent. Loughner listened calmly without expression. His arms were crossed over his stomach, lurched slightly forward and looking straight at Pietz.
A plea agreement offers something for both sides, said Quin Denvir, a California defense attorney who has worked with Loughner attorney Judy Clarke on the case against unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
Prosecutors would avoid a potentially lengthy and costly trial and appeal, knowing that the defendant will be locked up for life.
Clarke managed to avoid the death penalty for other high-profile clients such as Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph, who bombed abortion clinics in the late 1990s and Atlanta's Olympic park in 1996.
The decision to spare Loughner a federal death sentence makes sense, said Dale Baich, a federal public defender in Phoenix who handles capital case appeals and isn't involved in the case.
"As time went on and there were numerous evaluations, I think everybody had a better understanding of Mr. Loughner's mental illness." Baich said. He added: "It appears that he will need to be treated for the rest of his life in order to remain competent."
Christie reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Pete Yost in Washington and Barry Massey in Santa Fe, N.M., contributed to this report.