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

Amnesty: EU Failing Migrants, Refugees

Rights group says migrants, refugees subject to detention, extortion, beatings More

From South Africa to Vietnam, Cyclists Deliver Message Against Rhino Horns

Appalled by poaching they saw firsthand, sisters embark on tour to raise awareness in countries where rhino horn products are in demand More

Uber Wants Johannesburg Police Protection

Request follows recent protests outside ride-hailing service's Johannesburg office More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs