November 25, 2012

Judge who sentenced Giffords shooter has Murray County ties

By Mark Millican Times-Courier

— A man who confessed to killing six people and wounding 13 others — including a sitting congresswoman — was sentenced Nov. 8 by a federal judge who has ties to Murray County and a former Whitfield County official. The mass shooting happened in Tucson, Ariz., in January 2011, and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

Steven Cockburn, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker High Country Realty, said he is a first cousin to U.S. District Judge Larry Burns, who sentenced Jared Loughner, 24, to life in prison. Cockburn also served at one time on the Whitfield County Board of Education.

A college dropout with a history of psychiatric disorders, Loughner received seven consecutive life terms plus 140 years in prison, without the possibility of parole, under a deal with prosecutors that spared him the death penalty, according to

Burns said the life sentences he imposed — one for each of the six people who lost their lives, and a seventh for the attempted assassination of Giffords — represented the individuality of the victims, the news agency reported.

“He will never have the opportunity to pick up a gun and do this again,” Reuters reported Burns as saying. Giffords, who stepped down to heal from her wounds, was in court to face Loughner at his sentencing but did not give a statement.

“There was a good deal of publicity about the sentencing, especially about what the victims had to say,” Burns said in an email. “I’m not sure I can add much of value to their sentiments.”

Cockburn said he did not grow up with Burns but did spend time with him when the California family visited Georgia or his family traveled there.

“He’s a hard worker and always seemed to win in his prosecutions over the years,” Cockburn related. “He’s tough, but fair. He had a good reputation for business lawsuits, and getting people to arbitrate rather than going through the court. Larry went to law school at San Diego State, married down in San Diego and worked his way through the prosecutor’s office down there and got into the U.S. Attorney’s office. He went up through the ranks there and then got to be a federal judge at a pretty young age.”

The cross case

Cockburn said Burns has also adjudicated other cases in his “federal role” that have garnered a lot of publicity, including one involving a Christian cross on public property.

“He is a conservative Republican, which is kind of an oxymoron in that (Ninth) district of (southern) California,” Cockburn noted. “He was the judge in that Soledad cross thing in San Diego. He found in favor of leaving it and then he got overturned in San Francisco (appeals court). But his ruling on it was, ‘Hey, it’s fine. Leave it alone.’”

The Mount Soledad controversy concerns a cross that was once on public property but then became part of a Korean War memorial. Opponents of the 29-foot-high cross claim it violated the First Amendment in that it gave preference to Christianity over other religions.

Burns said he could not talk about that case.

“As far as the Mount Soledad cross case, I can’t speak about it because it is still pending before me,” he wrote. “Federal judges — in fact, I think most other judges, too — are prohibited by our Code of Judicial Conduct from commenting on pending or impending cases.”

Visiting the Georgia mountains

Cockburn said Burns “liked the outdoors” when they visited his grandparents’ home in the Alaculsy Valley near Cisco in Murray County.

“You can see a lot of things here you can’t see out in California,” he noted. “His dad was raised up there with my dad on a little 200-acre farm during the Depression.”

Burns said what he liked most about visiting the north Georgia mountains was “the adventure.”

“I explored the outdoors: fishing, shooting guns, seeing farm animals up close — all things that as a kid from the big city, I had never experienced,” he said of visiting his grandparents. “I remember traipsing into the woods on one of our visits with one of my older cousins who let me shoot his .22 rifle. The first thing I hit was a fish swimming in a shallow creek, nicking the poor fish’s tail just enough so that it couldn’t swim away. We pulled the fish out of the creek and carried it back to my grandmother’s house where it became the source of a good laugh when everyone heard how I got it.”

Burns said a hike with his cousins to where his and Cockburn’s parents had been born was revelatory.

“The house was long gone, but the foundation was still intact,” he recalled. “I was impressed, even then, with how stark their existence must have been. No running water, no toilets, several people sleeping in a small single bedroom. I recall looking out on the adjacent plot of land that used to be a cotton field where my dad had labored as a kid. It had long ago been overrun by vines and scrub brush. But seeing all of that firsthand made me appreciate my dad even more. He had accomplished a lot coming from such humble beginnings.”

Cockburn said an interesting footnote was that his father, Lee, joined the Army and Burns’ father, Tom, joined the Navy — and they both ended up near each other at war’s end.

“Uncle Nub — that was our nickname for him — was on the battleship Wisconsin that went into Tokyo Bay, and dad was in Tokyo with the Corps of Engineers, but they didn’t get to see each other,” he said.

Cockburn said his uncle and aunt live in Arcadia, Calif., and have been married “65 years or so.”