Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Shooter's Mental State Will Be at Forefront of Aurora Trial Can This Formerly High-Achieving? Neuroscience Student Understand the Proceedings and Assist His Lawyer in Defense of His Life?

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Shooter's Mental State Will Be at Forefront of Aurora Trial Can This Formerly High-Achieving? Neuroscience Student Understand the Proceedings and Assist His Lawyer in Defense of His Life?

Article excerpt

Now that a defense attorney for Colorado shooting suspect James E. Holmes has referred in court to his client's unspecified "mental illness," it is a near certainty that the trial of the 24-year-old former doctoral student will turn on his mental state, legal experts said.

A desire to understand the motive behind the rampage that left 12 dead and 58 injured in a suburban Aurora movie theater has fed speculation about the inner logic of the accused. Was Mr. Holmes an angry depressive out to seek revenge, with knowledge of right and wrong? Was he suffering a psychotic break caused by the onset of schizophrenia or some similar illness?

Can the formerly high-achieving neuroscience student even understand the proceedings and assist his lawyer in his own defense?

The fact that Mr. Holmes had sought care from a university psychiatrist had already suggested a likely mental health defense. But public defender Daniel King's comments to the judge Thursday on the need to probe "the nature and depth of Mr. Holmes' mental illness" offer the strongest clues to date of the legal landscape that lies ahead.

Mr. Holmes was arrested outside of the theater in what police describe as full body armor with three weapons after the July 20 shooting during a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie -- among the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. Police said his apartment was booby trapped with explosive devices. Such details, said Sam Kamin, a professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, would make a defense assertion that police arrested the wrong suspect unlikely.

"The question will become: How culpable is he?" Mr. Kamin said. "The focus is going to be on what did he know, what did he understand?"

Colorado state law on an insanity defense is tough and detailed.

After John W. Hinckley Jr. successfully pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 attempted assassination of then- President Ronald Reagan, the federal government and many states, including Colorado, tightened statutes.

Colorado law now requires a defendant be "so diseased or defective in mind at the time of the commission of the act as to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong with respect to that act." A warning follows: "Care should be taken not to confuse such mental disease or defect with.... passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred."

Denver defense attorney Dan Recht, a former president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, called sanity "a subjective thing. . With certainty he's not like you and me. He is deeply disturbed, but whether it reaches the sanity defense we don't know."

Mr. Holmes' mental status could be raised in court at three junctures: if the defense believes he is not competent to stand trial, if he pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, and as a mitigating factor in the penalty phase if a jury finds him guilty. …

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