Colorado Shooter: Insane or Just Plain Evil?

Defense attorneys for the man accused of killing 12 people in a packed movie theater will likely present an insanity defense. But proving it won’t be easy.

RJ Sangosti, Pool / AP Photo

Around 9:30 a.m. on Monday, a shackled James Holmes was ushered by deputies into the courtroom of Arapahoe Superior Court Judge William Sylvester. His hair dyed orange, his eyes glassy, the man accused of murdering 12 people in a Colorado movie theater sat about 20 feet from the victims’ family members. During the 10-minute court proceeding, Holmes looked at times like he was in a catatonic state. When Judge Sylvester asked if he understood the charges being brought against him, he sat silent while his public defender Daniel King answered for him.

Holmes’s bizarre behavior quickly raised questions about whether the 24-year-old was truly insane or was just acting the part. At a press conference outside the court building, 18th Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers said the death penalty could be a possibility for Holmes, whose bloody rampage at the Century 16 theater on July 20 has dominated headlines and left this quiet city reeling. A decision about the death penalty “is months down the line,” said Chambers. Legal experts say Holmes’s public defenders, King and Tamara Brady, will most likely present an insanity defense. Kind and Brady couldn’t be reached for comment.

Insane or not, Holmes will most likely never see the light of day again. “This isn’t a whodunit case,” said Professor Louis Schlesinger, an expert in psychology and mass violence at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Even before a court determines whether Holmes is insane, it must decide if he is competent to stand trial. In all likelihood, say experts, the answer will be yes. “The threshold for a person to be incompetent is that the person has to be unaware of the nature of the legal proceedings,” said Mimi Wesson, a law professor at the University of Colorado–Boulder who says defendants are rarely deemed incompetent. This means the person “doesn’t understand that he’s been charged with a crime and is unable to assist his lawyers. He can’t talk to them, communicate to them, can’t remember anything, and is extremely out of contact with reality.”

Meanwhile, Holmes’s defense team will likely have him examined by a state-appointed expert to determine if he is insane. That would include establishing a history of psychosis or extreme mental illness.

“The standard is very high,” for proving insanity in Colorado, said Barry Latzer, a professor of government at John Jay. “You have to show not only that he was psychotic but that at the time of the crime, as a result of the psychosis, he literally didn’t know what he was doing was morally or legally proper. It’s going to be hard to find that he didn’t know what he was doing.”

Jared Loughner mounted an insanity defense after he killed six people and injured 14 others, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords at a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center in January 2011. But questions were raised after police found he surfed the Web about execution by lethal injection, conditions of solitary confinement, and past assassins before he went on his rampage. There was also evidence that he stalked Giffords before shooting her. Loughner pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a hearing to determine if he’s fit to stand trial.

Holmes, who had been enrolled in a neuroscience doctoral program, allegedly spent four months building up an arsenal of guns and ammunition before he went on his killing spree. Before he arrived at the theater, he booby-trapped his apartment with trip wires and IEDs. He also reportedly applied for a membership with at least one shooting range. Prior to the shooting, Holmes allegedly posted a profile on the website Adult Friend Finder profile asking would-be suitors, “Will you visit me in jail?”

If the defense can prove that Holmes was insane at the time of the shooting, the death penalty would be taken off the table. That could be a difficult task given the prosecutorial prowess of Chambers, a successful prosecutor whose office is responsible for the convictions of two of the three people on Colorado’s death row.

Chambers will be pitted against Tamara Brady, a veteran public defender. In 2006, she represented Jose Luis Rubi-Nava, who was accused of killing his girfriend by dragging her behind a car with a tow strap. Rubi-Nava avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

If Holmes makes it to trial he will be one of the few mass murderers in recent years to do so. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 15 of their classmates at Columbine High School in 1999, and Seung-Hui Cho, who shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, all committed suicide immediately after their shooting rampages.