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Loughner case seen as taking years

Investigators have been poring over surveillance video, interviewing witnesses and analyzing items seized from Jared L. Loughner's home as they build a case in the assassination attempt against Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

It's a case that likely will take years to play out as it goes through the many phases of the criminal-justice system: prosecutions by both federal and state authorities, proceedings over whether to move the case to a different venue, a possible insanity defense by Loughner and prosecutors' likely push for the death penalty.

The next step is an arraignment scheduled for this afternoon in Phoenix for Loughner, who is accused of opening fire during a Giffords political event Jan. 8 in a rampage that killed six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl born Sept. 11, 2001. Giffords, who was shot in the forehead, and 12 others were wounded.

The congresswoman was flown to Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center Hospital on Friday from Tucson.

The hospital said Sunday that her condition is improving daily but gave no update on the buildup of brain fluid that has kept the congresswoman in intensive care.

Paul Charlton, who worked as Arizona's U.S. attorney from 2001 to 2007 and isn't involved in the Loughner case, believes that the accused gunman will likely mount an insanity defense. "Given what we know, that's going to be a defense," Charlton said.

"I don't see a lot of other viable defenses," said Michael Piccarreta, a Tucson lawyer who has practiced criminal defense in federal court for 30 years. "It appears the actual guilt or innocence in the shooting will not be difficult to prove, and his pre-shooting behavior seems to be a history of erratic behavior -- issues of pre-existing mental illness."

Before the case even gets to trial, the court would have to decide whether Loughner is mentally competent to stand trial.

"It could take a year; it could take a year and a half. It could take longer," Heather Williams, the first assistant federal public defender in Arizona, said of the time that would be required to bring the case to trial. Her office did not take the case because it had conflicts of interest.

One area that will help the pace of the case is the fact that it's a relatively simple investigation. While other high-profile cases have required a lengthy investigation to chase down leads and alleged co-conspirators, authorities have said they've concluded that Loughner acted alone. Dozens of people witnessed the shooting, and surveillance cameras captured it on tape.

Loughner will face two cases -- federal and state. The federal charges will cover the killing and attempted killings of U.S. government employees such as the judge and Giffords, while the state case will deal with the other victims. Federal prosecutors are going first, since charges have yet to be filed in the state case.

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