Nightly News | May 22, 2011
LESTER HOLT, anchor: At a federal court in Tucson , Arizona , hearing is scheduled on Wednesday for Jared Loughner on whether the suspect in the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others is mentally competent to stand trial . We get the story from NBC 's justice correspondent Pete Williams .
PETE WILLIAMS reporting: It could be the single most important court hearing for Jared Loughner , accused of killing six people and wounding 13 others in a Tucson parking lot in January at a meet and greet event hosted by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords . Loughner 's own lawyers have described him as, quote, "gravely mentally ill ." Now after five weeks of psychiatric evaluation at a federal prison hospital in Missouri , court documents suggest that doctors appointed by both Loughner 's lawyers and the prosecutors have concluded that he's mentally unfit to stand trial . If the judge agrees, the court proceedings against him would stop without a trial .
Professor IRA ROBBINS (American University Washington College of Law): The defendant can't be railroaded. The defendant has to participate in the proceedings. If as a result of a mental disease or defect he's not able to do that, then the proceedings cannot continue.
WILLIAMS: If Loughner is declared mentally unfit to stand trial , he'd be sent to a prison hospital for treatment. If he later improved, he could be brought back to court and put on trial . But if he didn't get better, he'd stay in the prison hospital. He would not be released. It's happened before. Russell Weston is still in a prison hospital today, never put on trial for running into the US Capitol building 13 years ago and killing two policemen. His attack prompted Congress to build a $600 million visitors center where tourists are screened through metal detectors. A declaration of mentally unfit for trial is different from not guilty by reason of insanity . That's a verdict that follows a trial , as in the case of John Hinckley Jr. , who shot President Reagan . But a finding that Jared Loughner is mentally unfit would mean no trial in Tucson for now and, perhaps, forever. Pete Williams , NBC News, Washington.