The James Holmes trial turns its focus to knowing right from wrong

Attorneys in the trial of alleged Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes argue issues of constitutionality and mental capacity, as Mr. Holmes seeks a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Photo by: Melanie Clayton

July 20, 2012.  Just after midnight.  A dark movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  Audience members are seated to watch the highly anticipated Dark Knight Rises, the final film in the acclaimed Batman series.  But what begins as a theater buzzing with excitement over the on-screen entertainment quickly turns into a theater filled with cries of terror over the real-life nightmare occurring in the theater.  No longer is the audience captivated by Bane, the movie’s villain with his facemask and eerie voice.  Their attention has shifted to the person standing in the front of the theater, with a gas mask and arsenal, spraying bullets at unsuspecting movie-goers.

The horrific scene at that Colorado movie theater is not new.  The alleged shooter, James Holmes, is now a household name and a fixture on television, in newspapers, and on the Internet, facing charges of murder and attempted murder.  But just as the focus in that movie theater moved quickly from a comic book villain to an armored gunman, the focus in the trial against Mr. Holmes has shifted from his alleged actions to his mental state when those actions were committed.

The defense now has a diagnosis sufficient to allow the entry of an insanity plea.

Potentially facing the death penalty, Mr. Holmes asked the court on May 13, 2013 to enter on his behalf a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.  Making the request before the court, attorney David King stated that the defense now had a diagnosis sufficient to allow the entry of an insanity plea.

The request for an insanity plea comes two months after Mr. Holmes entered his original plea.  In March of 2013, Chief District Judge William Sylvester, then presiding over the case, entered a traditional not guilty plea for Mr. Holmes because at the time, Mr. Holmes’s attorneys did not feel prepared to intelligently and effectively advise Mr. Holmes on how to plea.   Mr. Holmes’s attorneys further hesitated to enter an insanity plea because they felt doing so may inhibit the use of mental capacity later during sentencing.

Prior to entering a request to change the plea, the defense attempted to raise constitutional challenges to the Colorado insanity plea law, particularly the court-ordered examinations Mr. Holmes will have to undergo in using an insanity defense.  These efforts failed twice, however.  Two judges labeled the constitutional arguments “hypothetical,” refusing to rule on them because an insanity plea had not yet been entered.  This left the defense no choice but to enter the request to change Mr. Holmes’s plea and then raise constitutional challenges.

Under Colorado law, a plea can be changed to not guilty by reason of insanity if a compelling reason for the change exists.  And Mr. Holmes’s attorneys say they have just such a compelling reason – aside from their desire to challenge the law’s constitutionality.  Despite early ponderings over Mr. Holmes’s mental health, his attorneys said that only now the necessary information, a “qualified opinion” on Holmes’s mental state, exists to seek to change his plea; they have “a diagnosis that is complete.”

But this is all that was said.  No details about the diagnosis were provided.  No information was given regarding who made the diagnosis or when.  The lack of detail in this diagnosis no doubt leaves prosecutors in the case skeptical.  They want to know when the diagnosis was obtained, when a psychiatric evaluation was conducted, and why this information is just now coming to light.

The next step is for both sides to present arguments regarding the insanity defense.

Over the prosecution’s objections, however, Judge Carlos Samour, Jr. found that good cause does exist to allow Mr. Holmes to change his plea, finding a change to be “consistent with fairness and justice” for Mr. Holmes.  But this ruling does not mean that the new insanity plea is officially entered.  The next step is for both sides to present arguments regarding the insanity defense, and it is based on these, that the judge will make his final determination on whether to allow Mr. Holmes to formally change his plea.

The arguments will center largely on the constitutional issues the defense attempted to raise at earlier stages of the proceedings.  Mr. Holmes’s attorneys question the constitutionality of the Colorado law, which allows the court to appoint the psychologist or psychiatrist who will conduct the mental evaluation.  This leaves Mr. Holmes to be evaluated by physicians who are employed by the very state seeking the death penalty against him.  Further, the potential exists for these state-conducted evaluations to be used against Mr. Holmes in court.  It is these seemingly conflicting procedures with which the defense takes issue and on which Judge Samour will have to rule before reaching his ultimate decision on the changing of Mr. Holmes’s plea.

As required under Colorado law, a hearing is set for May 31, during which time Mr. Holmes will be advised of his rights and informed of the consequences of his plea.  Because of the already scheduled hearing, Judge Samour likely will make his ruling by May 28.

History seems to suggest that Holmes may, in fact, warrant a change in plea.

The State, not surprisingly, strongly opposes the allowance of a change in Mr. Holmes’s traditional not guilty plea.  Not only does it question the timing of the request, but it also disagrees that Mr. Holmes lacks the mental capacity to be held responsible for his alleged actions.  Prosecutors contend that the movie theater shooting was the culmination of a well-developed, methodical plan.

Evidence of this plan, according to the prosecutors, can be found in the fact that Mr. Holmes purchased a ticket to the midnight screening twelve days in advance, after spending months searching for an exact location.  Prosecutors also allege that Mr. Holmes purchased his arsenal of weapons approximately two months before the shooting.  Further alleged by prosecutors is the fact that Mr. Holmes knew which theater exit he could use to leave and then re-enter without being noticed wearing a gas mask and body armor.  Finally, they assert that the booby trap of explosives found at Mr. Holmes’s apartment demonstrates the organized nature of what was a fully concocted plan, not a spontaneous or maniacal attack by someone who lacks mental capacity.

The defense, on the other hand, in its efforts to prove his mental incapacity, has cited Mr. Holmes’s somewhat extensive history of mental illness.  For example, after his July 2012 arrest, Mr. Holmes was hospitalized after apparently inflicting head injuries on himself and was entered into a psychiatric unit after being deemed a threat to himself.  Police also found clonazepam, an anti-seizure and anti-anxiety medication, as well as the anti-depressant Zoloft in Mr. Holmes’s apartment after his arrest.  It is unknown, however, whether either drug was in his system at the time of his arrest.

Even prior to July 20, 2012, evidence existed to suggest that Mr. Holmes was not mentally stable.  For example, in the weeks leading to the shooting, Mr. Holmes asked a classmate in a text message about manic dysphoria, a condition that involves simultaneous manic and depressive states.

Additionally, he saw Dr. Lynne Fenton, a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado Denver, who subsequently reported to campus police that Mr. Holmes was harassing her via email and text message and that he was having homicidal thoughts.  These reports occurred about one month before the movie theater shooting.  This history seems to suggest that Mr. Holmes may, in fact, warrant a change in plea to not guilty by reason of insanity.

At the heart of all of this, is the difference between right and wrong.

Because the State seeks the death penalty against James Holmes, it is possible that the judge will be more likely to allow an insanity plea to be entered. Should the judge allow the plea, the prosecution would bear the burden of proof, according to Colorado law.  The prosecution would need to prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Mr. Holmes was, in fact, mentally capable of establishing right from wrong at the time of the shooting.  If the State fails to meet this burden, jurors must then find Mr. Holmes not guilty by reason of insanity.

Though this would not exonerate Mr. Holmes completely, it would save him from the death penalty; he would be placed, instead, in a state mental facility.  While the reward of mental institution over death arguably works in a defendant’s favor, risks do exist with raising the insanity plea.  As previously mentioned, these “mentally incapable” defendants must comply with court-ordered evaluations, creating the potential for self-incrimination.

At the heart of all of this, when it is boiled down to its most basic level, is the difference between right and wrong.  The State argues that Mr. Holmes absolutely knew what he was doing and that it was wrong; whereas the defense argues that Mr. Holmes was mentally incapable of knowing the rightness or wrongness of his actions.  The defense further argues that it is wrong to allow the body who is prosecuting Mr. Holmes to also evaluate his mental health.  The State, however, argues that to allow Mr. Holmes to avoid the death penalty by raising an insanity plea would itself be wrong.

Both sides present compelling points, which at times seem equally right.

What makes the arguments so interesting and so complex is what they pit against one another.  Judge Samour, in his determination, must weigh the State’s evidence of pre-purchased tickets and a two-months long arsenal gathering against the defense’s evidence of hospitalizations, medications, and a doctor’s reports to campus police.  Both sides present compelling points, which at times seem equally right.  What is certain, though, is that no matter the judge’s decision, the debate will continue over whether James Holmes actually knew right from wrong.

Harper Gwatney, Former Associate Editor/Ethics
About Harper Gwatney, Former Associate Editor/Ethics (9 Articles)
Harper Gwatney, originally from Goldsboro, North Carolina, served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2013-2014 academic year. She was also a member of the school's Mock Trial Team and an Associate Chair of the Old Kivett Advocacy Council. Prior to law school, Harper received a Bachelor's degree in English from UNC-Chapel Hill and a Master's in the Art of Teaching from East Carolina University. Harper then taught Honors and IB English at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Prior to her graduation from Campbell Law School in May 2014, Harper worked with Walker Allen Grice Ammons & Foy; Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway; the firm of Stewart Schmidlin Bullock and Gupta; and the Wake County District Attorney's Office.
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