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

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs