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Former Classmate of Jared Loughner: “He Was Definitely Off…He Didn’t Have the Same Stability Apparent in Most People”

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Accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner made his first court appearance yesterday since the January 8 shooting rampage that left six people dead and wounded 14 others, including Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona. We speak with a former classmate of Loughner who sat behind him in poetry class. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Arizona shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner has made his first court appearance since the shooting rampage that left six people dead and wounded 14 others, including Democratic Congress member Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat representing the Tucson area. Giffords was shot in the back of the head at close range Saturday morning outside a supermarket where she was holding an event to meet with constituents. On Monday, Loughner was arraigned in a Phoenix federal court on five federal counts, including two charges of murder. He could face the death penalty if convicted. Arizona officials say they also plan to file dozens of other charges, including murder, in state court. The hearing was moved to Phoenix from Tucson after all federal judges from the Southern District of Arizona recused themselves because one of the slain victims was Arizona’s chief federal judge, John Roll.

Congressmember Giffords remains in critical condition after surviving a gunshot through the brain. Doctors say she has shown encouraging progress by responding to verbal commands using two fingers of her left hand and even giving a thumbs-up. But her prognosis remains uncertain with the ongoing risk of brain swelling. This is Michael Lemole, chief neurosurgeon at the University Medical Center, where Giffords is being treated.

DR. MICHAEL LEMOLE: With regard to Congresswoman Giffords’ recovery, at this phase in the game, no change is good. And we have no change. That is to say, she’s still following those basic commands. On top of that, the CAT scans are showing that there is no progression of that swelling. We’re not out of the woods yet. That swelling can sometimes take three days or five days to maximize. But every day that goes by and we don’t see an increase, we’re slightly more optimistic. And so, with that in mind, I think we are going to proceed over the next few days to see how she does.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the 63-year-old Judge John Roll, the dead victims were 30-year-old Gabriel Zimmerman, an aide to Giffords who was a social worker — he was engaged to be married; 79-year-old Phyllis Schneck; 76-year-old Dorwan Stoddard, who died trying to shield his wife from the bullets; 76-year-old Dorothy Morris, whose husband George remains in critical condition after suffering two gunshot wounds as he tried to protect her; and nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, a third-grader recently elected to the student council at her elementary school. Christina’s father, John Green, said his daughter had attended Giffords’ event out of an interest in politics. He also reflected on her birth date, September 11th, 2001.

JOHN GREEN: President Obama and his campaign is where she started getting interested in politics. And at least to have him mention of her makes me feel good. She began her life on a tragedy like 9/11, and her life was ended with a tragedy here in Arizona.

AMY GOODMAN: A classmate of Christina Green’s, Rachel Cooper-Blackmore, talked about the loss of her friend.

RACHEL COOPER-BLACKMORE: It was yesterday, Friday, that she was just playing around with her friends on the playground, laughing and having fun. And then yesterday she just was gone. It’s really sad.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier in the day, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama led a moment of silence for the shooting victims on the South Lawn of the White House. President Obama will travel to Arizona Wednesday to attend a memorial service and meet with survivors and the victims’ families.

Meanwhile, on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out about the attack.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Look, we have extremists in my country. A wonderful, incredibly brave young woman Congress member, Congresswoman Giffords, was just shot by an extremist in our country. We have the same kinds of problems. So, rather than standing off from each other, we should work to try to prevent the extremists anywhere from being able to commit violence, to interfere with the rights of girls to go to school, of taking actions that would shut down a hospital run by a brave woman doctor. That’s what the world needs to hear. The extremists and their voices, the crazy voices that sometimes get on the TV, that’s not who we are.

AMY GOODMAN: As the mourning continues, more details have emerged of Loughner’s troubled background. Friends and acquaintances have described him as a loner who displayed severe mental health issues that went untreated.

He was able to purchase several weapons under Arizona’s lax gun control laws. Last year, Arizona became only the third state to drop requirements for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The weapon he used during the rampage had a magazine carrying 30 rounds. On Monday, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said he plans to reintroduce a ban limiting magazines to no more than 10 rounds. The ban expired in 2004 under President Bush.

My first guest from Tucson today is Steven Cates. He attended an advanced poetry writing class with Jared Loughner at Pima Community College in spring 2010. He’s also a student at the University of Arizona.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Steve. Talk about the class and Jared. Did you sit next to each other in class?

STEVEN CATES: He sat directly in front of me in the advanced poetry class.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about him, how you came to know him?

STEVEN CATES: Well, when I first got into the class, I could tell that he was definitely off. He just didn’t have the same stability that was apparent in most people. And he was definitely an outsider in the class. And I grew up in a small rural town, and I — so I knew what it was like to be isolated and ostracized, and I didn’t want him to have to experience that in a poetry class, so I started, you know, trying to talk to him in class. I’d give him high-fives when I’d walk in and just tried to be friendly with him, because everyone else seemed so off-put by his presence.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you say to him? How did he respond to you?

STEVEN CATES: He really seemed to appreciate the interaction with me. When I’d give him high-fives, he’d smile really big, and he’d nod, and he’d say, “What’s up?” We’d talk about writing. He was really into older philosophy like Greek philosophy, and so he’d try to engage me in philosophical debate.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the poetry, his response in the class, his own poetry, his response to others’ poems?

STEVEN CATES: His poems were actually pretty, pretty different from what he seems to have become. One of his poems was about a garden and a gardener and the relationship between the gardener and the earth and the beauty of the earth and the flower. One of his other poems called “Meathead” was a satire piece about jocks and how they spend all their time at the gym and then how the gym equipment is the equivalent to their girlfriends.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about his response to other students in the class?

STEVEN CATES: It varied. Sometimes he would be mute for a critique session. Other times he would seem to just laugh randomly while they were reading their poems, even if it was at an inappropriate time.

AMY GOODMAN: Was there a situation where a young woman in the class wrote a poem about an abortion?

STEVEN CATES: Yes, yes. There was a student that had written a poem about an abortion. And I was absent that day, but from what I had heard from the other students is he, when — after she had read it, he made a pretty distasteful joke comparing her to a terrorist, saying that she killed babies.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened after saying something like that?

STEVEN CATES: She was pretty upset about it. And a couple weeks later, some of the other students that were uncomfortable with him being in the class got together and talked to the professor and asked that Jared be removed from class, because they didn’t feel safe with him being in there.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened? Was he removed?

STEVEN CATES: Yes, he was.

AMY GOODMAN: Ultimately, he was removed from the college, is that right? From Pima Community College, he was kicked out, unless he could bring in —

STEVEN CATES: That’s what I’ve heard.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Steven, on —

STEVEN CATES: From what I —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

STEVEN CATES: Sorry. From what I was told, I had — I was in class with him in the spring semester, and in the fall semester, Pima had asked that he not come back until he had a psychological evaluation saying that he was not a threat to anyone on campus.

AMY GOODMAN: What were your thoughts on Saturday when you heard about the shooting? Where were you? And where were you when you heard that it was Jared Lee Loughner?

STEVEN CATES: Well, I was at my house, and one of the other students had asked me if the kid with the creepy grin from class, if his name was Jared. And I said yes. And she said that she was pretty sure that he was the person that shot Giffords. And it was definitely shocking, not so much because it was him, but just that it had happened. After I had time to think about it more and I looked back in hindsight, it wasn’t really all that surprising that he was the person behind it.

AMY GOODMAN: Had he ever talked to you about his political interests, his concerns?

STEVEN CATES: Once, when I had seen him outside of class sitting at a picnic table on campus, I had ended up talking to him, and he was talking about how he was upset that the U.S. government had made the U.S. dollar virtually useless by doing away with the gold standard, and he had a desire for a new currency that actually had value. But other than that, he was pretty disinterested in politics, especially with current affair politics. I had even at one point tried to goad him into a political debate, and he was just not interested in talking about politics or current politicians.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you surprised that Jared Loughner was able to get a gun, Steve?

STEVEN CATES: No. He didn’t do anything. I mean, in class, he never — you know, other than the distasteful joke, he never threatened anybody. He never made any aggressive acts toward anyone. He didn’t bully anyone. He didn’t do anything other than seem creepy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steven Cates, I want to thank you for being with us.

STEVEN CATES: No problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven attended an advanced poetry writing class with Jared at Pima Community College last spring. He is also a student at the University of Arizona. Jared Loughner was kicked out of Pima Community College and told he couldn’t come back unless he had some kind of mental health note.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to talk about what the legislature is going to do. We’re going to speak with a mental health professional and with the former surgeon general of the United States, Richard Carmona. He’s now in the sheriff’s office in Tucson.

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Jared Loughner, Mental Illness and How Budget Cuts Have Slashed Behavioral Health Services in Arizona

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