Longform

What happens when accused killers plead insanity?

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.

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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."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar