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For Ariz. Shooting Case, A 'No-Nonsense Judge'

Judge Larry Burns has presided over nearly every high-profile federal case in San Diego in recent years. He sentenced former Rep. Randy Cunningham for taking bribes from contractors. He presided over the prosecution of a prominent Mexican drug cartel leader.

And now, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has selected Burns to oversee the case of Tucson, Ariz., shooting suspect Jared Loughner. All of Arizona's federal judges recused themselves from the case because one of the victims, Judge John Roll, was their colleague.

Former U.S. Attorney Peter Nunez hired Burns as a federal prosecutor and has watched his career closely.

"He's distinguished himself on the bench. He's a no-nonsense judge," Nunez says. "I think he's an excellent choice to preside over a case of this magnitude."

Death Penalty Experience

President Bush appointed Burns as a federal judge in 2003. Today, Burns is one of the few who have handled federal death penalty cases. One of Burns' colleagues, Judge Thomas Whelan, says death penalty experience is likely to come in handy in the case against Loughner.

"A case like this doesn't have as many pitfalls for a judge, in my opinion, as what I would call a 'whodunit' case," he says. "I think pretty much here, everybody knows what happened and who did it. It's more or less, 'What is it? What's the level of punishment that should be meted out here?' "

But Whelan says the case does have other complications, because it includes the killings of a 9-year-old girl, a federal judge and the attempted assassination of a U.S. representative.

"Any time you're dealing with a case like this, there's a lot of emotions. You'll have a lot of people that will be interested in every ruling he makes and a lot of people that will be second-guessing, probably, every ruling that he makes," he says.

Still, Whelan says no one should second-guess whether Burns can be impartial in a case involving the murder of a fellow federal judge.

"He's the kind of judge that, in my opinion, is going to call the balls and strikes as he sees them without any regard to who the victim was or who's making the objection," Whelan says.


Both prosecutors and defense attorneys who have argued before Burns say he likes to have an end in sight in trials and sets tight deadlines. Defense lawyer Knut Johnson says he moves cases forward quickly.

"He expects the lawyers in front of him to be able to handle the deadlines that he sets. He doesn't believe in any undue delay. And he has very firm ideas of when cases can and should be tried," Johnson says.

Burns has worked with Loughner's defense attorney in the past. Judy Clarkeran the federal defender's office in San Diego when Burns was a top prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office, and they argued cases against each other. Johnson says there is a lot of respect between the two.

"Judge Burns recognizes that when Judy does something, it's for a legitimate reason — it's to make her client's situation better — and that she plays by the rules," he says.

Their history together may also help Burns decide where the trial should be held, Johnson says. While the defense may think the case should be moved out of Arizona, the Justice Department opposes a change of venue.

Copyright 2020 KPBS Radio. To see more, visit KPBS Radio.

Amita Sharma