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In Aurora massacre, trial may not shed much light on motive

Legal expert Linda Kenney Baden and psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz discuss suspected gunman James Holmes' bizarre court appearance and what his possible mental instability means to the efforts to try him in court.


While relatives of the victims of last week’s movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo. – and the public at large – are understandably fixated on why the crime was committed, the criminal justice system to a large extent will ignore that question in determining guilt and punishment. 

It appears that the alleged shooter, 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes, acted alone, so there apparently is no conspiracy or anyone else directly to blame. Nor is there any indication that this was the act of a terrorist organization or individual attempting to advance a political agenda of some sort. The crime allegedly was committed by a single human being who explained himself to police as being a character from the Batman comics – the Joker.  

Theater massacre suspect appears in court

But in deciding whether a person should be punished – and how much – the law will inquire into a very limited set of questions. 

The first is guilt. With a multitude of witnesses inside the theater able to testify about the black body armor worn by the gunman and Holmes arrested just outside the theater moments afterward wearing an identical ensemble, defense attorneys appear to have little chance of persuading a jury that their client did not pull the triggers of the weapons – all of which he had legally purchased – used in the crime. And the fact that he apparently booby-trapped his apartment immediately before the slaughter, with the apparent intent of creating a diversion, only adds to the evidence against him. 

Wes OliverWes Oliver is a professor at Widener University who teaches criminal law and procedure. This fall he will join the faculty of the Duquesne University School of Law as a professor and director of the school's criminal justice program.

If Holmes is convicted in connection with the crime, an insanity defense will almost certainly be contemplated. But the legal question raised by an insanity defense is relatively straightforward: Did the defendant understand the difference between right and wrong? 

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John Hinckley, Jr., escaped criminal punishment when he attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan to impress the actress Jodie Foster, but in the wake of his successful insanity defense, legislatures made it considerably more difficult for defendants to prevail on the grounds of mental incapacity. Under the law that existed at the time, defendants were not legally responsible even if they knew an action was wrong if they could show they were unable to resist the impulse to commit the act. After Hinckley's case, a number of states, including Colorado, amended their laws to permit a successful insanity defense only if the defendant did not know the difference between right and wrong. The upshot of this more stringent requirement is that defendants rarely prevail when they claim insanity.  

James Holmes, the suspected gunman in the tragic Aurora movie theatre massacre was seen nodding off, glaring and staring blankly at a court hearing, leading many to speculate about an insanity defense. NBC's Kate Snow reports.

So, if Holmes’ attorneys pursue an insanity defense, the jury will be asked only one question: Did he know it was wrong to try to take the lives of scores of people?  If the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ then the question becomes: What degree of homicide did he commit. To determine this, the jurors must decide whether he intentionally and deliberately killed his victims – first-degree murder – or whether he merely knowingly or recklessly killed them – second-degree murder. The degree of planning involved in this case, however, leaves no doubt that the perpetrator intended the results. 

Photos: Shooting at Batman screening in Colo.

Best friends Allie Young and Stephanie Davies, survivors of the Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting and whose courageous story was mentioned by President Obama, tell their story of meeting him at the hospital.

There will then be a final question about punishment. Colorado has the death penalty, though death sentences are quite rare in the state and there has only been one execution in 30 years. Nevertheless, there is the possibility of a death sentence in this case.  Under Colorado law a jury may return a death sentence if the defendant killed more than one human being in a single episode.  Almost certainly he did. 

In a capital case – and it seems likely this will be a capital case – the defense is permitted to present anything in mitigation. That means that the defense may attempt to explain why the defendant attempted to take the lives of scores of innocent persons, but it is certainly not required to do so. It can focus on any aspect of his life in an effort to save it. And the prosecution only has to demonstrate that the mass killing occurred to obtain a death sentence. Nothing requires either side to present evidence of what motivated this man before incarcerating him or even executing him. 

Read more legal analysis by Wes Oliver

We often think of natural disasters as tragedies that defy explanation. Tragedies caused by humans can most often be explained, though, and the criminal justice process often provides that explanation. Motives are often offered to demonstrate a defendant's intent to kill.  

In the case of James Holmes, it seems likely that circumstantial evidence alone will demonstrate his desire to take an extraordinary number of innocent lives, and that his motives will defy any traditional explanation, such as personal animosity or greed. But the law does not require prosecutors to show motive, merely the intent to kill.  And that may be all that anyone will be able to show for this senseless act.   

As a result, any trial is likely to leave victims, and their families, with nearly as many unanswered questions as they have now.   

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