By Tim Gaynor
TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - A 23-year-old college dropout pleaded guilty on Tuesday to killing six people and wounding 13 others, including then-U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in an Arizona shooting rampage last year, and will be spared the death penalty in exchange.
Jared Loughner entered his guilty pleas in federal court in Tucson shortly after he was ruled mentally competent to stand trial on charges, including first degree murder, by District Judge Larry Burns.
"I plead guilty," Loughner, dressed in a khaki prison jumpsuit, said to each of the 19 counts read in court by Burns.
Giffords, a representative from Arizona who was seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, was meeting constituents at a Tucson supermarket on January 8 last year when she was shot through the head at close range. The six people killed include a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
Under a plea agreement, federal prosecutors, who originally charged Loughner with 49 criminal counts, have agreed not to seek the death penalty against him. Burns will sentence Loughner on November 15, and he could face multiple terms of life in prison.
The 19 counts he pleaded guilty to include murder, attempted murder and the attempted assassination of Giffords.
During an exchange with the judge before formally entering his plea, Loughner admitted going to the Congress-on-your-corner event hosted by Giffords armed with a Glock pistol with a plan to kill the congresswoman.
He also admitted shooting other people there with the intention to kill them because they had attended the event.
GIFFORDS SATISFIED WITH PLEA ARRANGEMENT
Mark Kelly, Giffords' husband, said in a statement before the hearing that the couple had been in touch with federal prosecutors and were "satisfied" with the plea agreement.
"The pain and loss caused by the events of January 8, 2011 are incalculable. Avoiding a trial will allow us - and we hope the whole southern Arizona community - to continue with our recovery and move forward with our lives," Kelly said.
Giffords resigned from Congress in January to focus on her recovery. Her former aide, Ron Barber, who was also wounded in the shooting spree, won a special election to fill her seat in June and will face re-election in November to serve a full two-year term.
Barber was in court for the hearing but Giffords did not attend.
"It is my hope that this decision will allow the Tucson community, and the nation, to continue the healing process free of what would likely be extended trial and pre-trial proceedings that would not have a certain outcome," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement following the hearing.
"In making the determination not to seek the death penalty, I took into consideration the views of the victims and survivor families, the recommendations of the prosecutors assigned to the case, and the applicable law," Holder said.
Loughner was determined unfit to stand trial in May 2011 after he disrupted court proceedings and was dragged out of the courtroom. Court-appointed experts said he suffered from schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions.
He has since been held at a U.S. Bureau of Prisons psychiatric hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where he has been forcibly medicated to treat psychosis and restore his fitness to face proceedings in his prosecution.
(Additional reporting by Jazmine Woodberry, Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom)
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