Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to accept a plea deal and not seek the death penalty for Jared Loughner, the gunman in the Arizona mass shooting last year, received an important vote of confidence from one of those wounded: former representative Gabby Giffords. A statement issued by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, said that the couple had been in touch with Holder’s office, and that while they can’t speak for all the victims or their families, Kelly said: “Gabby and I are satisfied with this 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.”
The same judge who ordered Loughner forcibly medicated to treat his schizophrenia a year ago ruled on Tuesday that he is now competent to stand trial, meaning he understands the charges against him and the consequences of seeking a plea deal. Loughner, 23, admitted his guilt in the court hearing and surrendered his right to plead insanity, ensuring he will spend the rest of his life in prison, but his life will be spared.
Giffords’s endorsement of Holder’s decision, forgoing vengeance and what would be a highly public trial, flows from the same generosity of spirit that she has shown throughout her recovery, reminding her former colleagues and all Americans how to move past tragedy and embrace what’s important in life.
Her agreement to bypass the death penalty did not surprise those who worked with her on Capitol Hill. She is remembered as always rising above the battle and finding what was ennobling, even when others despaired. “It’s consistent with how I see her,” says a Democratic leadership aide. “She’s not an intensely political person like most members, she wasn’t here to do politics—she was here to get things done.”
Last summer, when Congress passed the Budget Control Act, raising the debt ceiling after a very bitter fight, Giffords unexpectedly came to the House floor to cast what would be her last vote as a member, to support the unpopular though necessary legislation. Her courage left many members in tears, and she remains a symbol of how lawmakers can overcome their differences and pull together when it really matters.
“She was the inspiration for our effort to have members sit together at the State of the Union,” says Jim Kessler, a cofounder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group for which Giffords served as an honorary co-chairwoman. He recalled how, just after the shooting, the group sent a letter to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and all the leaders of Congress suggesting members cross the aisle and buddy up with colleagues in the other party. “We didn’t know how it would be received—we thought it might be ridiculed as too small, he says. “But people jumped on it because they wanted to elevate the dialogue and have a little more respect for what people say to each other.
“For a short amount of time, there was a bit of a détente—and she was the inspiration for that.”
Kessler points out that each of the recent mass shootings has its own narrative. The tragic event at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., has focused on hate groups and racist music, with the shooter’s involvement in the white supremacist movement offering context and perhaps a motive for his actions. The Colorado shooting in the movie theater revived the debate about gun control and raised questions about how the alleged shooter could have acquired such an arsenal without raising any red flags.
The attack that left Giffords with a grievous wound to the head occurred at a time when vitriolic partisan dialogue was at its height, leading some commentators to blame right-wing talk radio and the Tea Party for the shooting. Loughner’s reportedly severe mental illness and his apparent lack of any political motives undermined any theory of causality. As Americans rooted for Giffords and followed her struggle to regain a full life, they also yearned for a more civil discourse. And once again, she has shown the way. “I’m in favor of the death penalty,” says Kessler, “but the victim should have a say—and Gabby Giffords is a naturally generous spirit.”