Aurora Theater Shooting

Thomas Eric Espinoza: Appeals court affirms murder conviction, rejects insanity defense

Thomas Eric Espinoza, who beat a female neighbor to death and then attempted to mount an insanity defense, has had his conviction upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The case had posed numerous legal challenges, largely because of Espinoza's insistence on representing himself at trial while pleading insanity.

As detailed in our 2008 cover story, "The Good, the Bad, & the Mad," Espinoza had a history of assaults, blackouts, substance abuse and bizarre behavior long before his savage attack on a neighbor, 29-year-old Stacy Ann Roberts, in an Englewood apartment building in 2004. Arrested minutes later in bloodsoaked clothes, he went through extensive competency and sanity evaluations and feuded with his court-appointed attorneys, dragging out the process of getting to trial for four years.

Various examiners disagreed about Espinoza's mental state -- he was described as "somewhat delusional," bipolar, and as an outright malingerer faking symptoms to avoid life in prison. But he was ultimately deemed competent to stand trial; much to the dismay of Arapahoe County District Judge Michael Speer, he insisted on acting as his own attorney, although a criminal lawyer served as his (rarely consulted) advisor.

Despite the minefield of possible appeal issues posed by a man with a history of mental problems conducting his own defense in a homicide case, prosecutors Richard Orman and Karen Pearson managed to persuade the jury that Espinoza's condition didn't meet the legal definition of insanity. It took the panel only three hours to find him guilty of first-degree murder, earning him a life sentence.

Yesterday, three appeals court judges upheld the conviction, dismissing all of Espinoza's claims of judicial error and finding that there was "significant evidence that defendant was competent to stand trial." The decision is unpublished, meaning that it has no value as a precedent in case law. Still, it's an indication of the enormous hurdles facing any defendant in meeting the legal definition of insanity, even with a documented history of mental illness.

That may have some bearing down the line on the case of James Holmes, the suspect in the Aurora theater shootings, and any possible insanity defense his attorneys may mount. Both of the prosecutors who sent Espinoza to prison for life, Orman and Pearson, have also been involved in the prosecution of Holmes.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Thomas Espinoza's Confession and a History of the Insanity Defense."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast