Andy Cross / Pool via AP
Defense Attorney Daniel King, right, and Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes review advisement documents in court in Centennial, Colo., on June 4.
One year after 12 people were slain and dozens more wounded in a massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., survivors and the families of the victims allegedly gunned down by James Holmes still have months to wait before learning if the former neuroscience student will be found guilty on first-degree murder charges.
The ongoing case, scheduled to go to trial on Feb. 3, 2014, involves thousands of potential witnesses and pieces of physical evidence and 40,000 pages of documents, all of which prosecutors and Holmes’ defense team will sift through to determine what may wind up being the most critical question: Whether Holmes was sane when he carried out the shooting.
Twelve people between the ages of 6 and 51 died in the attack; 58 more were shot. Attorneys for the alleged killer wrote in a July 10 court filing that “Holmes suffers a severe mental illness and was in the throes of a psychotic episode when he committed the acts that resulted in the tragic loss of life and injuries sustained by moviegoers on July 20, 2012.”
It was the first admission by attorneys for Holmes, who changed his plea in June to not guilty by reason of insanity, that their client was responsible for the heavily armed melee that left dozens more people injured.
Insanity defenses are used in less than 1 percent of criminal trials, according to Dr. Howard Zonana, a professor of psychiatry and law at Yale University. In most of those cases, the plea is successful when it had already been agreed upon by both the defense and prosecution before they go before a jury, he said.
At issue, Zonana said, is whether the accused appreciated the wrongfulness of what he or she was doing at the time, and so investigators and lawyers will sort through all the evidence they can gather about what a defendant was thinking before committing a crime.
“It’s nice if the person was hospitalized three or four times before with exactly the same symptoms before they did this,” Zonana said. “But if you don’t have that, you try and gather data from a lot of other sources to show that this craziness was sort of there beforehand.”
The evidence in Holmes’ case is extensive, but court filings to date have given hints at his mental condition only in dribs and drabs. On June 25, Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos Samour granted state psychiatrists six additional weeks to observe Holmes, who was briefly committed to Denver Health Medical Center last November, according to court documents.
Defense lawyers have fought to obtain a video of Holmes while he was under psychiatric care at the facility, where he “remained for several days, frequently in restraints,” they wrote in a motion filed in March.
Holmes was transported to the facility because he was “a danger to himself,” the document states. In other motions, the defense team has argued that the tape may help assess Holmes’ psychiatric condition.
“Moreover, the defense has spoken with the clinician who will be conducting the court-ordered sanity examination of Mr. Holmes, about the necessary materials he needs to conduct his examination,” they wrote in a separate motion filed in June. “He expressly stated that video footage of Mr. Holmes while he was hospitalized at Denver Health is relevant to his sanity examination, and that he would like to view this footage.”
The chances of an insanity defense proving successful in Holmes’ case are “really, really slim,” Michael Perlin, a professor at New York Law School, told the Denver Post.
Insanity defenses are allowed in every state besides Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah. The standard is set by what is known as the M’Naghten rule, based on an 1843 trial of a Scotsman who killed a man he had mistaken for the prime minister of Britain. That test relies on assessing whether the person knew what he was doing and that it was wrong at the time of the offense.
Colorado is unusual among states with the insanity defense, however, in that the burden of proving Holmes’ sanity at the time of the crime will fall to the prosecution. Among the evidence prosecutors would like cite in court, should the case get to that point, is Holmes’ response when questioned by police immediately after the shooting, when he asked them “How do I get a lawyer?” and said he wanted to “invoke the Sixth Amendment.” The Sixth Amendment pertains to a speedy and public trial by jury.
Statements that appear to show a clear head after the fact, as well as evidence that the accused person gathered firearms or other materials with the intention of using them to commit a crime, may undercut an insanity defense in the eyes of a jury, Zonana said.
“It’s hard to explain to a jury at a time when somebody is psychotic and delusional that they can still plan,” he said. “So when they see planning they tend to think, ‘Well, he must have appreciated the wrongfulness.’”
The judge has also ruled that prosecutors can use a notebook sent by Holmes to a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado before the shooting. The notebook reportedly contains violent plans.
On July 10, Samour rejected a motion from defense attorneys, and said that Holmes would be anchored to the floor during his trial by a hidden restraint. The judge wrote in his order that the restraint is the least restrictive available and is “necessary for public safety.”
The shock of the Aurora mass shooting, compounded for many by the brutal killing of 20 Connecticut elementary school children in December, sparked a national push for new gun control laws. Colorado was among the handful states to pass new restrictions on the purchasing and ownership of firearms, signing into law expanded background checks and limitations on the size of ammunition magazines.
For heartbroken relatives of people who died in the movie theater shooting, the case drags on. Victims have logged “a voluminous number” of calls requesting that they be allowed to attend Holmes’ hearing or trial, according to a July 17 filing by prosecutors, but the judge has yet to rule on whether they will be given access. Until then, they wait, and the nuances of a psychiatric diagnosis for Holmes will bring little peace.
“Do any of us think he’s insane?” Sandy Phillips, mother of shooting victim Jessica Ghawi, said after the judge allowed Holmes to change his plea in June. “No, absolutely not. He was way too meticulous to be insane.
"He’s mean. He’s evil. But he’s not insane.”