Colorado Shooting Trial Likely To Hang On Suspect's Mental State

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A public defender for suspect James E. Holmes tells the judge there's a need to probe the 'nature and depth' of his client's mental illness, a strong clue to the defense's strategy.

A public defender for suspect James E. Holmes tells the judge there's a need to probe the 'nature and depth' of his client's mental illness, a strong clue to the defense's strategy.

James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, appears last month in Arapahoe County District Court with defense attorney Tamara Brady.

Now that a defense attorney for Colorado shooting suspect James E. Holmes has referred in court to his client's unspecified "mental illness," it is a near certainty that the trial of the 24-year-old former doctoral student will turn on his mental state, legal experts said.

A desire to understand the motive behind the rampage that left 12 dead and 58 injured in a suburban Aurora movie theater has fed speculation about the inner logic of the accused. Was Holmes an angry depressive out to seek revenge, with knowledge of right and wrong? Was he suffering a psychotic break caused by the onset of schizophrenia or some similar illness?

Can the formerly high-achieving neuroscience student even understand the proceedings and assist his lawyer in his own defense?

The fact that Holmes had sought care from a university psychiatrist had already suggested a likely mental health defense. But public defender Daniel King's comments to the judge Thursday on the need to probe "the nature and depth of Mr. Holmes' mental illness" offer the strongest clues to date of the legal landscape that lies ahead.

Holmes was arrested outside the theater in what police describe as full body armor with three weapons after the July 20 shooting during a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie — among the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. Police said his apartment was booby trapped with explosive devices. Such details, said Sam Kamin, a professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, would make a defense assertion that police arrested the wrong suspect unlikely.

"The question will become: How culpable is he?" Kamin said. "The focus is going to be on what did he know, what did he understand?"

Colorado state law on an insanity defense is tough and detailed.

After John W. Hinckley Jr. successfully pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, the federal government and many states, including Colorado, tightened statutes.

Colorado law now requires a defendant be "so diseased or defective in mind at the time of the commission of the act as to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong with respect to that act." A warning follows: "Care should be taken not to confuse such mental disease or defect with … passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred."

Denver defense attorney Dan Recht, a former president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, called sanity "a subjective thing..... With certainty he's not like you and me. He is deeply disturbed … but whether it reaches the sanity defense we don't know."

Holmes' mental status could be raised in court at three junctures: if the defense believes he is not competent to stand trial, if he pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, and as a mitigating factor in the penalty phase if a jury finds him guilty.

An assertion that Holmes is incompetent would require mental health evaluators to find that he is unable to follow proceedings or assist in his defense.

That was the case with Jared Lee Loughner, the gunman who killed six and wounded 14, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Ariz., last year. After a court-ordered evaluation, Loughner was diagnosed with schizophrenia and found incompetent to stand trial. He was committed to a federal prison medical center for treatment intended to restore his mental competency.

Loughner pleaded guilty Tuesday after a judge agreed with experts that he now understands the proceedings and the implications of his actions.

If Holmes' competency is not challenged — or is restored through treatment — his defense could contend at trial that he was legally insane at the time of the shootings.

If the defense makes such a plea, competency and sanity evaluations would be conducted for the court by the Colorado Mental Health Institute — the state facility for those channeled through the criminal justice system — while the prosecution and defense would seek their own experts.

According to court records, Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, where he was a student, and mailed her a package prior to the shootings.

Psychiatrist Richard Martinez, an adjunct professor at Sturm who teaches psychiatry and law, said such records would be reviewed by the experts, as they are "vital" to evaluating a defendant's mental state at the time of the crime.

If mental health issues are not raised as a defense, claims that interactions between the accused and the person's psychiatrist are privileged "might be legitimate," Martinez said. But such confidentiality goes out the window once a formal plea of "not guilty by reason of insanity" is entered, he said.

The detailed planning that appears to have preceded the attack led Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates to suggest that the gunman knew exactly what he was doing.

But the capacity for planning and deliberation are not inconsistent with severe mental illness or an insanity defense.

"Delusions are by definition fixed false beliefs," said psychologist Xavier Amador, who has worked with about 50 death penalty clients suffering from schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders. "Frequently, because you're delusional, you're exceptionally good at planning."

For example, he noted, Russell Weston Jr., who traveled from Ohio to storm the U.S. Capitol in 1998, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Two officers were killed. Weston remains in a mental institution. "The idea that if you plan you're not mentally ill is a red herring," Amador said.

Even with ample evidence, however, "a jury might be hesitant to find Holmes insane because of the horrific nature of the multiple murders," defense attorney Recht said. "There's a ton of political pressure [on prosecutors] and I think there would be a ton of pressure felt by any juror."

If Holmes is found guilty, his mental status would probably be raised yet again by his defense during the penalty phase of the trial, Recht said. Prosecutors have not yet said whether they will seek the death penalty. But prosecutors historically have had "a very difficult time" securing such verdicts from juries in Colorado, which has executed just one prisoner since 1977, he said.