Colorado Movie Theater Shooting Trial: Focus on Insanity Defense

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 27, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The trial of Colorado theater shooter James Holmes begins today and is expected to focus more on punishment than on guilt. Holmes killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater over three years ago, but he has pleaded not guilty, contending he was legally insane at the time of the shooting.

This case bears some similar elements to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial for the Boston Marathon bombing: little question of guilt, but large arguments about the proper punishment. And like Tsarnaev, Holmes is attempting to avoid the death penalty. But there will also be some significant differences as well.

The Issue of Insanity

One of the reasons Holmes's trial has been delayed so long is the multiple psychiatric evaluations attempting to ascertain his mental state. Whereas Tsarnaev's defense strategy was to admit responsibility, but deflect as much blame onto his deceased older brother as possible, Holmes is contending that he should not be responsible for his actions due to mental disease or impairment.

Colorado law uses a combination of the M'Naghten Rule and the "Irresistible Impulse" test to determine whether a defendant was insane or not. The M'Naghten Rule asks whether the defendant knew the nature of the crime or could distinguish right between right and wrong at the time he committed the act. The Irresistible Impulse test is an addendum of sorts to M'Naghten, allowing that even if the defendant could tell right from wrong, he could be under such duress from mental disease that he had lost the free will to choose between the two.

Once insanity is claimed, the burden is on the state to prove a defendant was sane and the competing doctors who have evaluated Holmes already will have a lot to say on the issue. Ultimately, however, the jury will have to determine whether Holmes could understand the nature of his actions and whether he was in control of his actions.

The Possible Punishments

As noted above, both Tsarnaev and Holmes are trying to avoid the death penalty. In Tsarnaev's case, he has already been found guilty, and the argument that he was unduly influenced by his brother was made in hopes the jury would sentence him to life in prison instead.

In Holmes's case, he is hoping the jury will find him not guilty by reason of insanity. If they do, Holmes will be remanded to a psychiatric facility. His time there would be based on continuous evaluations of his mental health and his potential danger to others.

Trials in cases of mass shootings are rare, and successful insanity defenses even rarer. Reviews of 160 mass public shootings showed only three defendants were found insane.

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