Arizona gunman in court as Obama leads mourning

The 22-year-old Jared Loughner said nothing to shed light on his motivations.

Last Updated: Jan 11, 2011, 09:08 AM IST

Phoenix: The man accused of trying to assassinate a congresswoman in an Arizona shooting spree that left six dead appeared in court on Monday but said nothing to shed light on his motivations.

President Barack Obama led the American nation in a sombre minute of silence to honour the 20 people gunned down in Tucson on Saturday, stepping out onto the White House lawn with his wife Michelle, their heads bowed.

Flags were at half-staff at the Capitol in Washington, where hundreds of aides and lawmakers crammed the storied steps of Congress to pay silent tribute to the victims, including one of their own.

Democratic lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords, 40, was shot through the head at point-blank range before the gunman sprayed a crowd of constituents with bullets, a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge among six who died.

Jared Loughner, who faces the death penalty for the murder of the judge, appeared, his head shaven, amid tight security around the federal court in Arizona state capital Phoenix.

Dressed in a brown prison jumpsuit for the less than 15 minute hearing, 22-year-old Loughner appeared to follow proceedings closely, but said little beyond answering "Yes" to basic questions from judge Michael Anderson.

The judge agreed to his request to have Judy Clarke, who represented the Unabomber -- an anarchist serving life without parole for a 20-year mail bombing spree -- and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, as his attorney.

No plea of guilty or not guilty was entered during the hearing and a preliminary court appearance was scheduled for January 24. A mug-shot released by police showed the gunman with a haunting smile.

In an update on Giffords` condition on Monday, doctors said she was still responding to basic commands such as squeezing medics` fingers, fuelling growing hope for her recovery, although she remains in a critical condition.

Authorities said Loughner, a troubled young man booted out of a community college last year, fired a full clip of 31 shots.

He was reloading another clip into his 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol when bystanders, including a 74-year-old retired colonel whose head had just been grazed by a bullet, brought him to the ground.

Obama praised the "extraordinary courage" of those who tackled the gunman, including a young Giffords aide and a woman who helped disarm him.

At the Capitol, Democratic representative Emanuel Cleaver recited a prayer: "We ask blessings on the spirit of this nation... help us move from this dark place to a place of sunshine... we ask that you help keep our hearts pure."

Outside the Tucson hospital where Giffords clung to life with part of her skull removed, tearful well-wishers gathered, praying and hoping.

A search of Loughner`s home on Saturday unearthed a trove of evidence in a safe, according to the criminal complaint.

A letter from Giffords thanked Loughner for attending one of her earlier public meetings, in August 2007.

Also in the safe they found an envelope with the hand-written notes, "I planned ahead," "My assassination" and "Giffords”, the affidavit said.

Officials declined to assess Loughner`s motives or mental state. He wrote a stream of barely coherent postings on the Internet that showed an interest in developing a new currency and criticism of "illiterate" fellow residents.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik criticised the political climate in Arizona, which shot to the international spotlight last year over tough laws cracking down on illegal immigration from Mexico, an hour south of Tucson.

Bureau Report