Insanity Defense a Possibility for Shooter in Aurora Massacre

Posted July 31, 2012 in Criminal Law by

Aurora massacre suspect James Holmes was charged yesterday with 24 counts of murder and 116 counts of attempted murder, and could potentially face the death penalty if convicted. So far the evidence looks stacked against Holmes, who was arrested in the parking lot behind the movie theater showing the “Dark Knight Rises,” in the immediate aftermath of the July 20 shooting that left 12 dead and 58 injured. With essentially no hope of arguing that he was not the killer, one tactic Holmes’ legal team could try to pull off is the insanity defense.

The odds would not be in their favor. Currently, the insanity defense is attempted in less than 1 percent of criminal cases in the United States, and is successful about a quarter of the times it is invoked. Thanks to an acquitted assassin nearly thirty years ago, insanity defenses have to meet an extremely high bar to convince a judge and jury.

“The general rule in most U.S. jurisdictions today is that a defendant is considered insane in either of two situations,” says John Bussman, an attorney who runs the SoCal Law Blog. “Either he did not understand the nature of his acts, that shooting the people in the theater is likely to kill them, or didn’t understand that what he was doing is wrong.”


Antique Assassin

To pass muster, insanity defenses must comply with what is known as the M’Naghten rule, named after a 19th century paranoid schizophrenic British assassin. “Under the M’Naghten rule, the defendant is guilty if he understands what he was doing is wrong,” Bussman explains. “So it’s difficult to establish.”

John Bussman

The Colorado law pertaining to insanity defense states that “care should be taken not to confuse such mental disease or defect with moral obliquity, mental depravity, or passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred, or other motives, and kindred evil conditions.”

Dr. Brian Russell, a forensic psychologist and attorney, claims that from initial impressions a successful insanity defense looks like a long shot, noting that, “given the extent to which he allegedly engaged in what I call the ‘3 P’s’ (Planning, Preparation, and Practice) and in active concealment of his intentions, Holmes’ mind appears to have been functioning well enough to have been capable of discerning both the nature and wrongfulness of his actions and to have manifested ‘consciousness of guilt’ (concealment indicates awareness that he would likely have been stopped had his intentions been discovered).”

The alleged killer spent months accumulating guns and ammunition, and booby trapped his apartment in what appeared to be a meticulously planned operation. “The fact that he was planning it would tend to show that he understood the nature of his acts,” Bussman says.


No Longer a Threat

During the past century, states and the federal government shifted insanity defenses from the strict M’Naghten rule to the less stringent Durham rule, which lowered the bar from a defendant not knowing an act is wrong, to the act being a “product of a mental disease or defect.” “They may assert the defense that he labored under delusion or mental illness,” Bussman explains. “Defendants who hear voices and acted under voices are not guilty for reasons of insanity under the Durham rule.”

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However, insanity became a much tougher legal argument to make after John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting of President Ronald Regan in 1982. Facing backlash from the public, the federal government and most states shifted the burden to the defense to prove insanity, returning to the stricter M’Naghten rule.

Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Utah do not allow insanity defenses at all, although the Supreme Court is considering ruling on a case that could mandate that defendants have the option to plead insanity.

Another tack the Holmes defense could take is to argue that he is incompetent to stand trial, but the state could then forcibly medicate the suspect against his will in an attempt to bring him back to his senses.

Even if ruled incompetent, or not guilty for reason of insanity, Holmes could be confined to a psychiatric facility in perpetuity until he is deemed to be no longer a threat.

Do you think James Holmes’ legal team will employ an insanity defense? Share your opinion by leaving a comment below.

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