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

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid