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Colorado Theater Shooting and the Insanity Defense

The shooting spree allegedly committed by James Holmes during the premiere of the new Batman movie in an Aurora, Colorado theater resulted in the death of 12 people. According to authorities and the New York Times Holmes planned the shooting far in advance. He gathered an arsenal of weapons, utilized some form of noxious gas, and set up a series of explosives to detonate in his apartment with the purpose of injuring investigators. In addition to this planning, the alleged shooter, Holmes, was a promising neuroscience student (not exactly a cakewalk subject).

Contrast this preparation and the identity of the shooter with the act itself. Motive: none readily apparent. Victims: random. This doesn’t fit with our conceptions of crime. I might understand to a certain extent (but never condone) a person killing another out of revenge, greed, or anger. When a disgruntled employee engages in a workplace shooting, at some level we can explain this behavior based upon our human experience. The shooter was angry and was seeking revenge. In the Colorado case the victims are unrelated to the alleged shooter. There was no profit motive beyond the apparent desire to murder as many people as possible in as dramatic a fashion as possible. When these types of crimes occur, oftentimes our default explanation is that the perpetrator must be crazy.

At this point it is unknown whether the defense in this case will attempt to use the insanity defense. As noted in the Christian Science Monitor, the Colorado insanity defense requires clear and convincing evidence that the defendant was suffering from a mental disease and failed to know the difference between right and wrong. This is a high standard. First, clear and convincing proof requires more than a preponderance of the evidence. The best way this legal speak can be broken down, albeit in a somewhat nebulous manner, is by saying that the clear and convincing standard requires the fact-finder to be more than 51% sure and less than 99% sure. Second, it will be difficult to argue that a person with Holmes’s level of education, combined with the obvious wrongfulness of the act, was unable to know the difference between right and wrong.

Whether or not an insanity defense is pursued considerations of mental illness may impact this case in a couple of other ways. Claims of mental illness may result in a determination that the defendant is not able to stand trial. If this occurs the proceedings will be postponed until the court deems the defendant is fit to stand trial. While legal observers question the efficacy of an insanity defense claim in this case, claims of mental illness could impact the possibility of the death penalty. Assume the defendant is convicted despite an insanity defense claim. If prosecutors seek the death penalty a whole new set of rules will come into play after that conviction to decide whether capital punishment will be applied. The jury will be required by law to weigh aggravating factors, those which make the defendant more deserving of the death penalty, against mitigating factors, those which make the defendant less deserving of the death penalty. A mental illness which may not be enough to support an insanity defense may provide a sufficient mitigating factor to avoid the death penalty.

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Todd Hiestand is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. All posts by Professor Hiestand should not be considered as advertisements for the solicitation of legal services nor should you consider any post or comment to be legal advice that you should rely upon in a specific legal matter.

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Guest Sunday, 13 July 2014

About This Blog

OhBehave is the outreach blog of the MNU Behavioral Sciences Department. In matters related to Psychology, Sociology, and Criminal Justice you will find information and updates geared to keep students and professionals abreast of the latest research, professional developments, and important trends in each field. As we seek a life of purpose, the material presented in this blog is meant to enhance and deepen our understanding of people and our world so that we may intentionally reflect the grace and peace of our creator.