I have measured out my life in sentences: composing, reading, revising and discarding them; talking to students about how to write, interpret, and edit them. I have dreaded the sentence that doesn’t come easily. I have learned at times to play with words that feel like nonsense in order to discover and organize thoughts, teasing words to make clarity appear.

There are sentences with gaps and missing pieces. Redundant sentences. Muscular sentences. Transitional sentences. Sentences that sing. Then: stylistic fragments. Intentional run-ons. Does the reader trust your sentences? If you break the rules, will the reader follow? Sentences that capture complicated feelings or thoughts by uniting verbs with precise subjects and prepositional direction. I’m lost in this sentence. Is this the best place for this sentence? Could these sentences be combined?

The legal system complicates our usual grammatical and creative understandings. In court we find sentences as punishment meted out or handed down. Just or unjust. Immutable or commutable. Life or death sentences.

Last Thursday morning at 10 AM, sentencing worked as a participle, a gerund, and a verb. Jared Loughner, mass murderer of Tucson, wore a brown shirt and tie with slacks to his sentencing hearing. Formal sentencing took place after survivors and victims addressed the court. Jared Loughner was sentenced by the judge to seven life terms, plus 140 years.

Loughner’s life sentence seems at once simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. It was formed by seven consecutive life sentences, plus additional ten and twenty year sentences that combine to make 140 years. Altogether, these form one sentence that seems interminable yet could not be categorized as a grammatical error.

(The writer merely asks: is my sentence too long? too short? is something missing?)

Some of Loughner’s sentences were mandatory and therefore inevitable, based on his guilty plea offered in August, acknowledging guilt for crimes listed in the indictment. The press release spelled out the charges: Attempted assassination of a congresswoman. The murders of two federal employees. The attempted murders of two federal employees. Causing the deaths of four participants at Congress on Your Corner. Wounding ten additional participants. Knowingly creating grave risk of death to thirteen people in his line of fire.

In exchange for his guilty plea, in light of his mental illness, and along with the will of the survivors, Loughner’s sentence takes the place of a death penalty. Any layperson will notice that that the sheer number of Loughner’s sentences cannot actually be completed. This raises the question: What is the purpose of so many of them? Judge Larry Burns emphasized that there is a symbolic element at work here, to promote respect for the law and just punishment for the human lives taken, lives that can never be replaced, and human lives irreparably damaged. Jared Loughner should never get out of custody. On that symbolic level (if not technicality of law) his sentence must extend far beyond his own natural life.

The ritual began at 10 AM and ended just after noon. Those who chose to address the court and the killer about the violence and its impact stood at a broad lectern with a long, wiry microphone. There was no requirement to speak here, and some—including Jim Tucker, Randy Gardner, Bill Badger among others—did not choose this forum. Ten did. Some had written personal sentences on pieces of white paper and did not seem to go off script. Others recalled their sentences from memory or spoke as the spirit moved them. Some asked the judge for permission when they wanted to direct their sentences at Jared Loughner. One did not ask but addressed him anyway.

Because this was not a trial, because the defendant had pleaded guilty already, all sentences spoken into the record were not sworn testimony and could not be cross-examined. They did not need to be cross-examined. The witness-victim-survivor statements were made of sentences and fragments and pauses for breath and balance. They were made of wounds in the neck, and prayers to Jesus, and feeling the breath leave his body, and a bullet near the back of her spine, and scars on the scalp, and the gun, and how the first responders came, and falling to the ground, and the gun, and the asphalt, and the long surgery, and now when he hears a loud sound, and the blue sky on that crisp January morning, and an arm brace and paralyzed limb, and a cane, and I sleep alone now, and the blood, and I will never think of you again.

The judge confirmed that Loughner would not address the court or the victims. “Yes, that’s true,” Loughner said. He did not put any other words together, did not prepare or read any statement. His attorney did not prepare any statement.

Patricia Maisch said, “The mental health system failed us.”

Sarah Hummel Rajca said, “My daughter’s first trip to Tucson is because of this sentencing.”

Alex Villec said that we must “do away with unspeakable violence as a means of expression.”

Susan Hileman visibly shook as she told Loughner, “You turned a civics lesson into a nightmare.”

Mary Reed said, “Mr. Loughner introduced my children to something evil.” Also: “I feel for his parents. I pray for him. I hope he thinks of me daily.”

Betty-Jean Offutt (neé Schneck) said, “Mr. Loughner was allowed to plead for his life. No one that day was given a choice to live or die.”

Mavy Stoddard said, “I forgive you. I do not hate you. Being a Christian, I have no choice.”

Pamela Simon said, “This chapter will close, but the book remains open.”

Ron Barber said, “There is no way to make sense of senseless acts.”

Mark Kelly, with Gabby Giffords standing silent next to him, positioned his body with her body on the opposite side of the lectern. He said, “Gabby would trade her own life to bring back any one of those you savagely murdered on that day.” And: “Now she struggles to deliver each and every sentence.”

(The Arizona Daily Star published his entire speech, composed of seventy-one sentences, the following morning.)

At the end of the ritual, before the judge spoke about the nature of the offense, and the history and characteristics of the offender, and before he read the sentence officially with a brief statement to the courtroom about the senselessly expired assault weapons ban and our society’s tied hands when it comes to involuntary commitment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wallace H. Kleindienst said, “Democracy was attacked that morning.”

Loughner seemed to concentrate, making eye contact with the people who spoke, his mouth bent into a soft but unchanging frown that was difficult to read. After each speaker, his lawyer, Judy Clarke, seemed to circle something on a paper in front of her. She touched his shoulder or leaned into him as if asking, Was he okay? At times, behind them, Loughner’s parents wept and wiped their faces.

In testimony during two previous hearings—one regarding forcible medication, one regarding competency and change of plea—psychologist Christina Pietz described Loughner’s history of “word salad” and disorganized speech. She said she observed these common manifestations of schizophrenia to a severe degree (along with distorted reality and hearing voices) during early days of Loughner’s incarceration.

If you saw this self-recorded video posted approximately three months prior to the shootings, you have a kind of impression of this linguistic unraveling at an even earlier stage. Another video attributed to Loughner on YouTube was composed entirely of passages of white text on black slides. There is syntactical and semantic slippage, a mixture of coherence and incoherence. At one point, he writes: “I don’t control your English grammar structure. But you control your English grammar structure.” Then, two slides later: “My ambition—is for informing literate dreamers about a new currency.”

In her testimony at the August hearing about competency, Pietz said that Loughner’s word salad had decreased significantly after consistent medication. He was putting words together that made sense, even in their broken syntax, revealing recognition and various degrees of remorse. She read from her progress notes dated July 11, quoting his words: “Assassination with murder I did. I especially cry about the child.” He also spoke about himself in the third person when saying that he knew Giffords was still actually alive: “Jared,” he said, “is a failure.”

I have lived in and through language so long that I have no trouble grasping how a schizophrenic break could be indicated by an obsession with grammar and semantics, with slippage into word salad in place of coherent sentences. Often, even without that medical condition, I feel one word or phrase too close to an edge. I have worried that my words will betray some hidden truth: that I am ugly, false, pudgy, self-pitying, lazy, shallow, vengeful, or sour. For years, I have witnessed comparable frustration in students—some as deeply serious writers, others simply trying to get through entry-level or remedial composition courses—all perfectly sane in their deep mistrust of words, in the anxiety that sentences they construct don’t yet mean what they want them to.

Confronting this edge as a writer has not made me or most of my students violent, nor does the edge drive most sufferers of mental illness to violence.

It is haunting that Loughner’s one documented encounter with Gabby Giffords prior to the shooting occurred four years earlier, at a similar Congress on Your Corner event in 2007. As a former friend reported to Mother Jones, Loughner asked Giffords that day: “What is government, if words have no meaning?”

When she did not respond the way he expected or desired, Loughner reportedly left feeling rebuffed, indulging a long grudge and fixation that intersected with his declining mental condition, as well as with the deteriorating control of his own language and clarity of meaning.

Four years later, the Glock 19 enabled Loughner’s chilling, uneducated, untreated/unmedicated, and profoundly nonverbal answer to the question he asked. The gun became—in fact, it replaced—his speech.

On November 8, the federal government finally pronounced its sentences–in the  aftermath of wounds and graves, suffering and recovery, bitterness and forgiveness, in the wake of money raised and ministries of healing begun, with citizens organizing to change policies.

The state government of Arizona, recognizing a signed request from the victims presented aloud at the subsequent press conference, accepted the federal sentence and considers the case closed.

Loughner must now face legal sentences assigned to him perpetually, though he offered nothing else to say for the record.

And, as it was all ending, despite the luminous testament of her survival, former Congresswoman Giffords pressed the back of Mark Kelly’s hand to her mouth, closing her eyes as her body sobbed–seeming profoundly, inarticulately aware that she has been robbed of her own sentences for a long, long time. Perhaps forever.

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JO SCOTT-COE is the author of a memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute Books, 2010), selected by Ms. Magazine as a Great Read. Her writing on intersections of education, gender, and violence has appeared in many publications including the Los Angeles Times, Swink, Ninth Letter, Hotel Amerika, River Teeth, and Fourth Genre. She received a Pushcart Special Mention in 2009 and Notable Essay listings in Best American Essays 2009 and 2010. Her conversations with essayist Richard Rodriguez and novelist-poet Margaret Atwood have appeared in Narrative. Find Jo on Twitter, at her website, and at the Writer Ninja Podcast, now available on iTunes. She is currently at work on a new book, Tripwires and Trigger Fingers.

3 responses to “Sentenced in Tucson”

  1. JSBreukelaar says:

    Survival, yes, a testament beyond words. Thanks for this. Profoundly thought-provoking.

  2. Tim Kirchoff says:

    Jo, this is really great. I’m so glad you shared this. While at times our “sentences” define us they can also confine us. I hope that makes sence

    Tim Kirchoff

  3. Ludie says:

    I really like your work behind the camera

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