Longform

What happens when accused killers plead insanity?

Page 3 of 8

"I thought they were going to pin a medal on me for saving the town of Manitou Springs," Dunn told the psychiatrist, according to news reports.

The judge agreed that Dunn was insane and sentenced him to the state hospital — but not for life, as a murderer would have been. When a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, Colorado law dictates that he be sentenced to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo until doctors determine it's safe for him to leave. If the district attorney objects to the doctors' findings, a judge has the final say.

Court records show that Dunn has been granted a series of privileges over the years, and Grohs says it's her understanding that he is now living in the community while remaining under the care of hospital staff.

"He's doing well," she says, "because he received the proper treatment that he should have been getting all along."

Insanity" has two definitions under Colorado law. The first is someone who was "so diseased or defective in mind at the time" of the crime that he couldn't tell wrong from right. The second is someone who suffers from a "mental disease or defect" that prevented him from "forming the culpable state of mind" to commit the crime. For first-degree murder, that state of mind is "after deliberation and with intent" to kill. So in other words, if a person is so mentally ill that they couldn't have planned the murder or intended to kill anyone, they might meet the definition for insanity.

Private defense attorney Ed Farry, whose law firm is located in Colorado Springs, has a theory about when the insanity defense works and when it doesn't. To some extent, he says, the outcome of a case is dependent on the logic of the crime: "When things have explanations, defendants tend to lose. When things are inexplicable, then defendants tend to win. The more the conduct makes sense, the less likely the person is to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, irrespective of what the pointy heads say."

Revenge makes sense, he says. So does anger. A mother killing her infant because God told her it was the only way to save the human race does not. "There's a joke — it's a lawyers' joke — about insanity," Farry says. "The joke suggests the truly insane person is the person who breaks into my house and starts doing my laundry."

But he questions whether it will work for Holmes. What he did "looks much different than a mother killing her child," Farry says. "This is a guy who dresses up in black and goes to the Batman movie and kills people. He's an angry son of a bitch who flunked out of college, and the world hasn't treated him right, and 'I'll show you.' It makes sense. What wouldn't make sense would be to go to the Bambi movie and do it."

Farry has handled several insanity cases, including that of Sean Fitzgerald, who was 36 when he murdered his father in 2008. That crime didn't make any sense.

At about 2 a.m. on a Thursday in November, Fitzgerald walked into his parents' bedroom and stabbed his father, a prominent Colorado Springs orthopedic surgeon, as he lay sleeping. According to news accounts, Fitzgerald's mother woke up and, screaming, pushed Fitzgerald off of his father before calling 911. When the police showed up, Fitzgerald told them, "I did it. I killed my own father in front of my mother."

Before the murder, Fitzgerald was living with his wife and son in Thailand. He'd been growing increasingly paranoid that the government was following him, recalls Brien Cecil, who prosecuted the case for the district attorney's office, and shortly before he returned to Colorado, Fitzgerald was hit by a truck while riding his bike. Cecil says Fitzgerald thought someone was tailing him and rode the wrong way down a street in an attempt to escape. He hit his head, and the injury, coupled with his mental state, prompted his father to travel to Thailand and bring him back to Colorado Springs to get help. On the plane, Fitzgerald was convinced that his fellow passengers were CIA agents.

Back in Colorado Springs, Fitzgerald's dad took him to a neurologist, who didn't diagnose Fitzgerald with a mental illness but noted that he was suffering from paranoia and should undergo further testing. He prescribed some medication, including sleeping pills. That night, after taking the medication, Fitzgerald killed his father.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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