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What happens when accused killers plead insanity?

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Several months later, DNA tests conducted on the crime scene revealed that blood found in Turner's sink contained a mixture of his blood and Romero's blood.

"When they focused on him, he made a full confession," recalls Romero's public defender, Les Downs, now a private defense attorney in Trinidad. Given the facts of the case, Downs's first move was to hire a psychiatrist to evaluate Romero. But the doctor discovered a problem, one that Downs already suspected: Romero was so mentally ill that he didn't understand what was happening or that he'd been charged with murder. "He had a flat affect and was very unemotive," Downs recalls. "He was not all there."

Downs said he was reluctant to raise the issue of his client's competency because he knew it would result in Romero's being sent to the state hospital for an evaluation by the doctors there. He was worried that the state psychiatrists would ask Romero about the facts of the case, which they are allowed to do. At trial, prosecutors can use new evidence obtained during a mental examination to rebut evidence presented by the defense.

But the psychiatrist that Downs hired believed it "was such an open-and-shut case that it wouldn't hurt," Downs says. He was right: When the case finally went to trial before a judge in 2005, Romero was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to the state hospital.

Mullens, who retired four years ago, wasn't happy with the outcome — and neither was Turner's family. "All of the doctors agreed he was insane," Mullens says. "I couldn't argue with it." But, she adds, "I don't like our law. I think that a person who commits a crime like this should be held responsible."

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The Holmes case appears to be headed for a jury trial. Judge Samour has laid out plans to summon 6,000 prospective jurors, and both sides have submitted questions to be included on a jury questionnaire. The jury box in Samour's courtroom was recently expanded to fit 24 chairs — seating enough for twelve jurors and twelve alternates.

Whether to try an insanity case before a jury is a tricky decision for the attorneys involved, says former Denver District Court judge Christina Habas. In her nine years on the bench, she oversaw two first-degree-murder insanity cases. One resulted in a jury trial and the other didn't. The case that wound up before a jury ended with a guilty verdict and a life sentence for the defendant.

"Many times, just because of the pure depravity of the act, jurors have difficulty with a [not guilty by reason of insanity] plea," says Habas, who is now a civil trial lawyer with the Denver firm Keating Wagner Polidori and Free. (Habas is not directly involved in the criminal case against Holmes, but she is representing several victims in a civil lawsuit against the owner of the Aurora theater.) That's especially true given the disparity in punishment, she adds. "The stakes are very high when you have the difference between a lifetime in prison and potential life at the hospital."

The two cases that Habas oversaw both involved nineteen-year-olds killing complete strangers for seemingly no reason. But the similarities end there.

The first case began in March 2004, when Amber Torrez was arrested for murdering an Ethiopian cab driver named Masfin Gezahan. According to news accounts, when the cops arrived at the scene, they found Torrez nearby; she had blood on her clothes and was trying to hide a knife in her jacket pocket. A month and a half later, she picked up a second murder charge in the killing of John Hand, the founder of Colorado Free University, who had been murdered the day before Gezahan.

Police suspected the crimes were linked because of the way the victims died: Hand was stabbed thirty times and Gezahan was stabbed 39 times. When investigators found Torrez's blood in Hand's apartment and on the sidewalk — and realized that she'd used his credit card at a convenience store — she was charged with his murder, too.

Early on, Torrez asked the judge for permission to fire her public defender and skip straight to sentencing. Instead, she was ordered to undergo a competency evaluation. Torrez told the psychiatrist performing the evaluation that she was an assassin hired by the U.S. government to lead a band of 700 killers called Shadow Angel Industries, according to news accounts. She believed the murders of Hand and Gezahan were sanctioned by the government.

Although Torrez suffered from delusions, Habas found that she understood what was going on and was competent to proceed. Throughout the case, Torrez repeatedly told Habas that she wanted to plead guilty and receive two life sentences. "I started every court hearing by saying, 'We can't do that today,'" Habas recalls. Torrez's public defenders thought a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity was more appropriate, and to help Habas decide whether the attorneys could enter an insanity plea against their client's wishes, she ordered Torrez to undergo a second evaluation to determine if she was insane when she fatally stabbed the two men.

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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