By Joseph Schuman
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A federal judge has agreed that the man charged with a deadly shooting spree last year that gravely wounded then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has made "measureable progress" in regaining his mental fitness to stand trial.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns in San Diego on Monday granted doctors at a psychiatric facility run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in Springfield, Missouri, four more months to attempt to restore Jared Loughner's competency.
During a 30-minute hearing that Loughner did not attend, Burns cited a January 25 report from the accused gunman's psychologist outlining signs of his improvement, including his participation in group-therapy sessions with other inmates.
Burns also said that the psychologist, Christina Pietz, had noted that Loughner had grown more alert, oriented and organized, that his speech was more coherent, that he was now able to maintain eye contact and that his overall level of cooperation had "greatly improved."
Loughner is charged with 49 criminal offenses, including first-degree murder, stemming from a January 8, 2011, shooting rampage outside a Tucson supermarket that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Giffords.
The Arizona Democrat, still undergoing rehabilitation for the head wound she suffered at close range, resigned her seat in Congress last month to focus on her recovery.
Loughner, 23, who has pleaded not guilty, was declared by Burns to be mentally incompetent in May, after Pietz and a second medical expert concluded that he suffered from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
On Monday, Burns called Loughner's ability to take part in group therapy a "signal of measurable progress" for a man who several months ago was incapable of engaging in any meaningful dialogue with anyone.
Burns said Loughner's treatment appears to be working and that he expected the onetime college dropout to eventually be rendered fit for trial. But he also noted that Pietz still regarded Loughner as incapable of understanding the charges against him or assisting in his own defense.
"She remains convinced that he's not there yet," the judge said.
The judge ordered Pietz to submit a new report to him on Loughner's condition by May 24, and he set another court hearing for the following month to review his status.
Burns also ordered staff at the Missouri facility to notify him immediately if they feel that Loughner has regained his mental fitness anytime before then, so that an expedited competency hearing can be scheduled.
Since his confinement in Springfield, Loughner's defense has repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought to bar doctors from forcibly medicating him with anti-psychotic drugs.
In September, Burns granted a government request to keep Loughner detained at the Missouri facility an additional four months for more treatment aimed at restoring his mental fitness. Prosecutors had sought eight months. His current commitment time at the facility had been set to expire on Wednesday.
Burns left open the possibility that he might further extend Loughner's detention in Missouri. But absent further measurable progress in the next four months, the judge said he would consider other alternatives, such as indefinitely committing the defendant to a psychiatric hospital.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Tim Gaynor)