In 2012 James Eagan Holmes opened fire on theatergoers killing 12 and injuring 70 others.
This was the worst mass shooting since the Columbine high school shooting in 1999. During Holmes’ trial, the defense argued that Holmes suffered from a psychotic breakdown. The prosecution argued that it was a premeditated act and thus Holmes did not meet the legal definition of insanity.
In Colorado, an insanity plea requires mental disease or defect that causes a person to not know right from wrong or not know that their actions will lead to an intended outcome. Being under the influence of alcohol and other drugs does not count, nor do psychopathic tendencies, anger and revenge.
The jury agreed with the prosecution and found Holmes guilty on July 16, 2015. In the sentencing phase, prosecutors sought the death penalty, but the jury could not reach a decision. Ultimately, the court imposed 12 life sentences without parole and 3,318 years for attempted murder and weapons charges.
In this case, Holmes was not allowed an insanity plea. Evidence was presented that Holmes kept a diary and had fantasized about murdering for some time. The prosecution argued that the diary entries proved Holmes’ crime was premeditated and therefore he did not meet the insanity definition in Colorado.
Was it really premeditation, or was Holmes acting on a long-held, bizarre delusion that led him to shoot into the theater crowd? Perhaps Holmes was punished for a delusion that he could not control. Or, was he faking to attempt an insanity plea?
As part of the trial, Holmes underwent a psychiatric evaluation. He was found to be “mentally ill, but legally sane.” The psychiatrist diagnosed Holmes with Schizoaffective Disorder, but concluded that he understood that what he did was wrong.
Holmes is one of many persons with severe mental disorders found responsible for their actions. For example, in 1992 Kelsey Patterson believed that he was controlled by a chip in his neck and received orders to kill a business man and his secretary. Patterson acted on his delusion and was given the death penalty despite recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to Governor Rick Perry to commute the sentence.
So, what is my opinion on insanity plea cases in general? The hurdles to prove insanity are appropriately high, but there are many potential contaminating factors that can frustrate justice.
People with severe mental illnesses who commit horrible acts are at the mercy of many in the court process. The skills of forensic evaluators, legal defense teams, the prosecution and jury composition each weigh on the scales of justice. Though justice is said to be blind, the court of public option sometimes places its angry thumb on the scales and demands a pound of flesh.
Rather than allow the death penalty in these cases, I believe that a life sentence is more appropriate, because it allows for legal appeals and treatment for the convicted.