News / USA

Insanity Defense Possible for Alleged US Movie Theater Shooter

James Holmes is seen in this undated police handout photo
James Holmes is seen in this undated police handout photo
VOA News
U.S. legal analysts say lawyers for the man, James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people at a movie theater in Colorado could mount an insanity defense.

A defendant is typically found not guilty by reason of insanity when the defense proves he or she did not know right from wrong at the time of the crime.

In federal court and most state courts, the defense must prove insanity by "clear and convincing evidence."

Aurora Theater Shooting Suspect James Holmes

  • Born December 13, 1987
  • Graduated high school in Rancho Penasquitos, California in 2006
  • Earned bachelor's degree in neuroscience from University of California, Riverside in 2010
  • Enrolled in University of Colorado at Denver neuroscience graduate program in 2011
  • Withdrew from the graduate program in June 2012
But in some states, including Colorado, the burden of proof is on the prosecutors, who must prove the suspect was sane at the time he committed the offense.

Lisa Wayne, the immediate past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and a practicing Colorado defense attorney, says despite the burden on prosecutors, Colorado is one of the tougher states for a defendant to claim insanity.  She says even in Colorado, the defense team must raise credible evidence.

Recent Mass Shootings in the United States

  • December 2012: A gunman kills 20 children at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
  • August 2012: An Army veteran kills six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
  • July 2012: A gunman kills 12 people during a showing of a Batman movie in Colorado.
  • January 2011: A gunman kills six people and wounds U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.
  • November 2009: A U.S. Army psychiatrist kills 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas.
  • April 2007: A Virginia Tech university student kills 32 people before committing suicide.
  • April 1999: Two Columbine High School students kill 12 students, one teacher and themselves in Colorado.
"What usually happens in these kind[s] of cases is that the conduct by the defendant is dissected by both sides.  The government will look at the weeks before the conduct occurs and sometimes the weeks after. But what led up to the conduct?  Can we show that, in fact, this is someone who really was planning and there was premeditation and those kind[s] of things?  Or is there really a likelihood that this person has a mental disease or defect?  That's usually the language that's used," explained Wayne. "So the mental health part of it is very important in terms of lining up credible psychiatrists, doctors who can really, in a credible fashion, say this defendant is just suffering from an extreme mental illness."

Wayne says misunderstandings about the insanity defense are common. "Most jurors and most people in the public, when you say someone was so mentally ill or they were insane, they want to see someone who is out of it, who is, you know, literally their hair is a mess, they're slobbering. It's the stereotypical picture of what we believe someone who is insane looks like, and that's not necessarily true.  So it's a tough burden, and you don't see it occurring very much in the criminal justice system," she said.

Even though people found insane are acquitted, Wayne says that does not make the defense an "excuse" or "easy way out," nor does it mean the defendants are not taking responsibility for their crimes.  She says the individuals are committed to state hospitals, where many spend several years to the rest of their lives.

  • Marietta Perkins prays during a vigil for victims behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado July 20, 2012.
  • A view of the memorial site for the victims is seen behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado July 21, 2012.
  • Isaac Pacheco leaves a birthday card for his friend Alex Sullivan, who was killed Denver-area movie killings, at a memorial site for victims behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado July 21, 2012.
  • Isaac Pacheco (C) is comforted after leaving a birthday card for his friend Alex Sullivan, who was killed in the Denver-area movie killings, at a memorial site for victims behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado Jul
  • People grieve during a vigil for victims behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado July 20, 2012.
  • People grieve during a vigil for victims behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado July 20, 2012.
  • People embrace before a vigil for victims behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado July 20, 2012.
  • A memorial of flowers is set up for victims on a hillside behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado July 21, 2012.

"What the public doesn't know is spending a life sentence in a state hospital for many defendants is far worse than going to a prison setting.  It has not moved forward in this country very much, in terms of what you see in [the 1975 film] One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Our state hospitals are in a deteriorated, pretty bad shape because of funding in this country," Wayne said. "So it's not a pleasant place to go.  It's not better.  It's not easier.  And in fact, many people, many defendants, would say, 'I'd rather be in jail.'"

One of the most high-profile acquittals by reason of insanity was that of John Hinckley, who, in 1981, shot then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan in an assassination attempt.  The Hinckley verdict prompted a widespread outcry, leading the federal government and many states to change their laws to shift the burden of proof of insanity to the defendant.

Wayne says more than 30 years later, Hinckley is still in a state institution.

You May Like

Turkey's Erdogan: Women Not Equal to Men

Speaking at conference in Istanbul, President Erdogan says Islam has defined a position for women: motherhood More

Ahead of SAARC Summit, Subdued Expectations

Some regional analysts say distrust between Pakistani, Indian officials has slowed SAARC's progress over the year More

Philippines Leery of Development on Reef Reclamation in S. China Sea

Chinese land reclamation projects in area have been ongoing for years, but new satellite imagery reportedly shows China’s massive construction project More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid