TUCSON, ARIZ.: Gabrielle Giffords limped to the front of the courtroom and stared silently Thursday as she came face-to-face for the first time with the man who tried to kill her.
The former congresswoman hadn’t been near Jared Lee Loughner since the deadly rampage outside a meet-and-greet at a supermarket that killed six people and left her partially blind, with a paralyzed right arm and brain injury.
Giffords’ astronaut husband told Loughner what Giffords couldn’t, before Loughner was sentenced to seven life terms for the January 2011 slayings and attempted assassination of a member of Congress.
“Mr. Loughner, you may have put a bullet through her head, but you haven’t put a dent in her spirit and her commitment to make the world a better place,” Mark Kelly said.
Giffords, wearing a black brace around her torso, looked closely at the 24-year-old Loughner for several minutes without uttering a word.
Loughner returned their gaze, but showed no emotion. His mother sobbed nearby.
Loughner was then ordered to serve the seven consecutive life sentences, plus 140 years in federal prison for the shootings that killed six people and wounded 13, including Giffords, as she met with constituents in a Tucson shopping plaza.
His guilty plea enables him to avoid a federal death sentence. No state charges will be filed.
The sentencing marked the end of a nearly two-year-long saga in which Loughner, who has schizophrenia, was forcibly medicated at a Missouri prison medical facility so he can be competent to understand the charges against him. U.S. District Judge Larry Burns recommended Thursday that he remain there indefinitely.
Some victims, including Giffords, welcomed the plea deal as a way to move on. It spared victims and their families from having to go through a potentially lengthy and traumatic trial and locks Loughner up for life.
At the hearing, Loughner looked nothing like the smiling bald man with a bruise around his eye seen in the mug shot taken after the shooting. He had closely cropped brown hair and was wearing dress pants, shirt and tie.
One by one, his victims had the chance to tell him how his actions immeasurably changed their lives. They approached the podium to address Loughner, and asked the judge if they could turn to face him.
Loughner told the judge that he would not speak, and sat showing no visible emotion at a table with his attorneys.
The last victim to approach the podium was Giffords, causing the courtroom to go quiet and somber. The couple had been sitting several rows behind the prosecutor’s table, across the room from Loughner.
As they sat in the courtroom, Kelly put his arm around Giffords, 42, and she would lean into him. When they made their way gingerly to the podium, Kelly held her arm and spoke to Loughner, who stared blankly at the couple.
“Gabby would trade her own life to bring back any one of those you savagely murdered on that day,” Kelly said. “Gabby works harder in one minute of an hour fighting to make each individual moment count for something than most of us work in an entire day.”
Kelly added: “Her life has been forever changed. Plans she had for our family and her career have been immeasurably altered. Every day is a continuous struggle to do those things she once was so good at.”
Kelly kissed Giffords when he was done. He grabbed her hand and helped her walk back to her seat.
Susan Hileman, who was shot three times while trying to save her 9-year-old neighbor, shook as she spoke.
“We’ve been told about your demons, about the illness that skewed your thinking,” she said. “Your parents, your schools, your community, they all failed you. It’s all true. It’s not enough.”