What happens when accused killers plead insanity?

What happens when accused killers plead insanity?
Jay Vollmar

James Holmes is a killer.

His defense attorneys have admitted as much. A year after he was accused of opening fire in a sold-out Aurora movie theater, leaving twelve people dead and seventy wounded, they wrote in a court motion that "the evidence revealed thus far in the case supports the defense's position that Mr. Holmes suffers from a severe mental illness and was in the throes of a psychotic episode when he committed the acts that resulted in the tragic loss of life and injuries sustained by moviegoers on July 20, 2012."

Holmes has since pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. So the question that a judge or a jury will have to answer is not whether he committed the crimes. It's whether he was "so diseased or defective in mind" at the time that he didn't know wrong from right.

The insanity defense is rare in Colorado. In the fifteen years between 1998 and 2013, that plea was entered in just 580 felony cases, out of hundreds of thousands, according to information provided by the Colorado Judicial Branch. (That number may, in fact, be higher, because public records only show cases that are not sealed.) Of those 580 cases, 62 were first-degree-murder cases. And of those 62, the defendant was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity in only 25.

Some of those people killed their children. Some murdered their parents. Others took the lives of complete strangers. But though the details of each murder are grisly in their own way, those 25 cases have one thing in common: None of them resulted in a jury trial. Instead, a judge examined the evidence, found the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced him or her to the state mental hospital in Pueblo.

Westword took a closer look at four of those cases and discovered another similarity: Every mental evaluation done on the defendants concluded that they were insane at the time of the crime. In an insanity case, the evaluations are key. Even if all of the physical evidence in the case points to the defendant, and even if the defendant confesses to the murder, if the doctors agree that the defendant was insane when he did it, there's a good chance he'll be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

In Colorado, the burden is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is sane and, therefore, guilty. But if all of the mental evaluations conclude that the defendant was insane, prosecutors can do little to dispute that.

"When the guy is clearly mentally ill, the law is pretty clear on what we need to do, whether we like that law or not," says Geoff Heim, a former deputy district attorney who prosecuted a Manitou Springs man for killing his seven-year-old daughter in 2000. The man told police that his daughter was possessed and that he'd killed the devil. Six months later, after psychiatrists examined him and concluded that he was insane when he committed the murder, a judge found him not guilty by reason of insanity.

But the Holmes case won't be resolved that easily. It's already been a year and a half since the shooting, and a jury trial scheduled to begin this month has been postponed. That's because prosecutors have asked for a second mental evaluation of Holmes, who was examined by a psychiatrist at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo last summer. The results of that examination haven't been publicly released, but prosecutors say the doctor's report contains "numerous deficiencies." They've also accused the doctor of having "an unfair bias" and have asked the judge to order Holmes to undergo further evaluation by two out-of-state doctors, one of whom consulted on the cases of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

A hearing on whether to grant the prosecution's request began on January 27 and lasted four days. But it was closed to the public and the press. Judge Carlos Samour has indicated that he'll rule on the request in the coming weeks.

Still, legal experts say it's safe to assume that the results of the first sanity evaluation weren't what prosecutors were hoping for. And what is that, exactly? At an April 2013 hearing in the case, Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler declared that, "For James Eagan Holmes, justice is death."

And the State of Colorado does not sentence insane people to die.


The cops who first spotted Holmes outside the Century 16 theater in Aurora after the attack testified at a preliminary hearing last year that he was "just standing there." They quickly realized he might be their suspect and ordered him to the ground at gunpoint. Holmes didn't resist, they said. "It was like there weren't normal emotional responses to anything," one Aurora police officer testified. "He seemed very detached from it all."

Later, at the police station, Holmes pulled a staple from the table and tried to stick it in an electrical socket, a detective testified. He also played with a Styrofoam water cup and pretended that the paper bags that police placed on his hands to preserve gunshot residue were puppets, moving them as if they were talking.

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My take on people like this? haul their ass out east of Pueblo about 40-50 miles on the prairie, stake them naked over a fire ant nest.
Screw insanity defense, nuf said, no hand wringing, a painful miserable death.


Pleading insanity is a real gamble for a defendant; it means he has completely given up on an alibi, on denying he did it, on suggesting that there was justification or mitigating circumstances, etc.  He is openly admitting that he committed the murder and his one and only defense is that we should take pity on him because we are willing to believe he is sick.

This defense very seldom works in the real world.  In addition, there are are least two conflicting standards - the old M"Naughton Rule that he was so crazy that he didn't even know what he was doing - and the newer Durham Rule that he knew but really really really couldn't stop himself.  Either one is a real high hurdle.

Considering that the 'reward' for a successful insanity plea can be a lifetime locked in a psych ward - where he would have even fewer legal rights than if he were in prison - this defense is trotted out only for cases with a life or death sentence.  Frankly I think a lot of jurors are saying to themselves, "I don't care that he hears voices or sees phantoms.  I don't want this guy ever turned loose even twenty years from now.  Since I don't trust bleeding heart shrinks, I'd rather send him where he'll be locked in a cage forever or put to death."

Sterling Meeks
Sterling Meeks

Stop lying. You couldn't kill a cockroach if it was crawling right up your schnoz.


There are many people in this world who have never even seen someone who is floridly psychotic.  Then again, some people have witnessed bizarre behavior & not understood what they were seeing.  This frequently happens when Law Enforcement encounters those with altered states of consciousness.

I would like to share a video of an expert in the field of deception & malingering.

If you are a mental health professional, you may be aware of this text:

I am providing this for public information.  I do not wish to argue with anyone who has never stepped foot inside prison or worked with within a forensic environment.  I have many years of clinical experience specific to this population. 

Tiffany Marie
Tiffany Marie

The fact someone could choose to plead insanity, in itself suggests intelligence. Most people who are truly insane are pitifully unaware of being so.

Kacey Ingram Jechura
Kacey Ingram Jechura

I was on the Clewis Green jury. We made the right decision, he clearly understood his actions were wrong evidenced through his own taped confession. He is mentally ill, he was also sane at the time of the crime. These things are not mutually exclusive, which Kossie-Butler seems to not understand.

LindaLee Law
LindaLee Law

If they know they are insane by the acts they do then they are competent to die for what they did.

LindaLee Law
LindaLee Law

They get pampered instead of hard labor. If they are so mentally ill then hard labor won't hurt.

DonkeyHotay topcommenter

... typical ignoramus, confuses intelligence with insanity.


Most defendants enter a plea based on the advice of their legal counsel, not their own intelligence or excellent decision-making.