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FBI loses out on chance to question accused LAX gunman

Pennsville Police Chief Allen Cummings stands outside the house where 23-year-old suspect Paul Anthony Ciancia grew up in Pennsville, Salem
Pennsville Police Chief Allen Cummings stands outside the house where 23-year-old suspect Paul Anthony Ciancia grew up in Pennsville, Salem

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - FBI agents investigating last week's deadly Los Angeles airport shooting have lost their chance to question the accused gunman, if and when he regains consciousness, now that a public defender has been appointed to represent the suspect, court documents show.

Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, who was shot and critically wounded when he was arrested last Friday by airport police, has been heavily sedated and incapacitated while hospitalized, federal prosecutors said in a court filing this week.

A court declaration by the federal public defender's office on Monday said Ciancia suffered multiple bullet wounds, including a gunshot to the face, and it described him as unconscious and unable to communicate.

A day after the shooting, Ciancia was formally charged with murdering a federal officer and committing an act of violence at an international airport. But his medical condition has so far prevented him from making an initial court appearance, or from being interviewed since being taken into custody.

On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Eick granted a public defender's office request seeking appointment as legal counsel for Ciancia on a provisional basis, over the objections of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Federal prosecutors argued in a court brief that the "practical effect of appointing counsel at this time ... would be to prevent the government from questioning Ciancia, as he would then be a represented party."

Criminal defendants are entitled to have an attorney present when questioned by authorities, and to remain silent.

But in public shootings or bombings, where police have reason to believe additional suspects might be at large or that a wider plot is in the works, law enforcement typically has the latitude to interrogate a newly arrested suspect without a lawyer present under a so-called public-safety exception.

"In any case like this, we always want to interview the suspect to make sure there wasn't someone else involved, or no other danger to the community from something that he might have done or planned to do," said Commander Andrew Smith of the Los Angeles Police Department, which is assisting the FBI in the shooting investigation.

It is also during the brief window between arrest and arraignment that the government usually has an opportunity to persuade a defendant to waive his constitutional rights and speak to investigators without a lawyer.

SEARCH FOR MOTIVE

"It has been reported that police officers at the scene of the shooting very briefly questioned defendant about the existence of additional shooters, but the FBI feels that additional topics need to be addressed with defendant if he is willing to talk," federal prosecutors wrote in their brief.

Authorities have said the man accused of opening fire at Los Angeles International Airport appears to have acted alone, but they continue to search for a motive behind the attack.

Ciancia is accused of walking into Terminal 3 of the sprawling airport and gunning down a Transportation Security Administration officer with an assault-style rifle.

Authorities said he then stalked past metal detectors through the security checkpoint and into the passenger-boarding area, shooting and wounding two other TSA employees and an airline traveler, before he himself was shot by police.

The slain officer, Gerardo Hernandez, 39, became the first TSA employee killed in the line of duty since the agency was created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Arguing that public defenders should not presume Ciancia would want their representation, federal prosecutors said, "when and if Ciancia recovers sufficiently to make an initial (court) appearance, he alone will be best positioned to determine whether appointment of counsel is in his best interest, and if so, which counsel."

But the judge rebuffed prosecutors' arguments without comment and ordered counsel appointed, according to the minutes of a closed-door hearing he held on the matter on Monday.

With the public defender's office now assigned to Ciancia, "they'll be sitting by his side as soon as he starts blinking his eyes, telling him 'Don't say a word, keep your mouth shut,'" said Steve Cron, a private criminal defense lawyer who also teaches at Pepperdine University law school.

Cron suggested the judge might have been reluctant to side with prosecutors without some overt evidence indicating co-conspirators or accomplices were believed to be involved.

Moreover, the seeming abundance of eyewitnesses to the shooting makes it less crucial than it might otherwise be for prosecutors to try to obtain a confession from the suspect.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the ruling.

"We'll do what we need to do under the law. Obviously, he is represented and we'll abide by the rules governing due process," FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.

The public defender's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Ken Wills)

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