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James Holmes in court: Mentally ill or faking it?

After suspected Aurora theater shooter James Holmes made his first court appearance yesterday, a national guessing game began. The question: Is Holmes, who appeared stunned and befuddled during his moments before the camera, exhibiting legitimate signs of mental illness, or is he acting? The debate has already transformed itself into a full employment plan for body-language experts, as the videos on view below indicate.

Our Melanie Asmar, who was in the courtroom with Holmes yesterday, noted in one of the posts linked above that the enormous press contingent on hand for the proceedings included a representative from Entertainment Tonight -- and indeed, last night's edition of the program was dominated by news about Holmes rather than the usual showcases for glittering premieres and celebrity gazing. Among the features was one featuring psychologist Dr. Lillian Glass, who said, "James Holmes's body language was very odd. One of the things that was disconcerting was that he kept nodding out. It looked like he was going to sleep. He looked like he was trying to stay awake."

James Holmes's mug shot.
James Holmes's mug shot.

Her supposition: Holmes was either suffering from the affects of sleep deprivation or was on heavy medication. District attorney Carol Chambers claimed to have no knowledge of the latter at a post-hearing press conference.

Glass also attempted to dissect Holmes's frown, saying, "He looked like he was going to cry in several instances. There was a crinkling of the forehead, the lower lips were down, and it looked like he was going to tear up."

HollywoodLife.com quoted Glass's analysis of Holmes, too, in addition to quizzing psychologist Dr. Carole Lieberman, who's apparently on a first-name basis with the accused assassin. "James looked as if he was trying to wake up from a nightmare," she's quoted as saying. "But every time he opened his eyes, he realized the nightmare was real. This confusion is typical of people who have immersed themselves in fantasy media violence and are having trouble getting back in touch with reality."

The U.K. Daily Mail cut to the chase with its coverage, headlining a sidebar to its main hearing coverage "Was James Holmes Faking It?" In the opinion of Dr. Joan Neff, a University of Virginia criminologist, probably not. She suggested that his actions suggested that he was mentally ill and possibly schizophrenic -- and she saw his decision to drop out of his doctoral program at the University of Colorado early as possible evidence. In her words, "We know that certain types of psychoses tend to have an onset in the early twenties; if that's the case he may be in the midst of coping with that. He may not know what's going on." Then again, she said he may simply have been showing symptoms of difficulty adapting to jail conditions.

Even local stations are taking part in these video diagnoses. Example: WFMY in North Carolina, which asked body-language trial consultant Blanca Cobb to weigh in. She saw Holmes's closed-in posture as indicative that he now lacks the sort of confidence that might be expected of someone who committed such a brazen act.

What's this prove? Absolutely nothing. But with nearly a week to go before Holmes is formally charged, and many months before he might be tried for the heinous slayings, news organizations, and those on the fringes, are already looking for ways to extend the story -- and doing the equivalent of reading the tea leaves when it comes to his demeanor is one way of doing that.

Look below to see the Entertainment Tonight and WFMY segments on body language.

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "Aurora theater shooting: President Obama shares Allie Young's amazing survivor's story."


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