James Holmes pleads not guilty by reason of insanity

Tim Skillern
The Lookout
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CENTENNIAL, Colo.—A significant number of victims have objected to James Holmes pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, but the judge in the Aurora, Colo., shooting case told the courtroom today that Holmes’ attorneys proved they can pursue that defense.

“The court finds that good cause has been shown [to enter the plea],” Judge Carlos A. Samour said, adding that Holmes’ attorneys had made a good-faith effort to talk to mental health experts and further explore the defendant’s mental state in recent weeks. Samour will rule by May 31 whether he accepts Holmes’ insanity plea.

Holmes faces the death penalty in the killing of 12 people in last summer’s shooting spree at a suburban Denver movie theater. Last Tuesday, Holmes’ lawyers notified the court they planned to switch the plea from not guilty to not guilty by reason of insanity.

Of the victims and family members of victims interviewed by the Arapahoe County district attorney’s office, 19 told prosecutors they did not think Holmes should be able to plead insanity. Six did not object and three said they had no position, prosecuting attorney Jacob Edson told the judge.

Pleas are the judge’s discretion—and Edson, while arguing against it, acknowledged as much. "It's up to the court," he said.

But victims’ opinions are especially important in Colorado, where the state’s Victims Rights Act requires that prosecutors take victims’ opinions into consideration when making monumental trial decisions, such as pursuing the death penalty.

Also complicating the switch to insanity is a Colorado statute that says a plea must be made at an arraignment, which was March 12, when the previous judge in the case entered a not-guilty plea on Holmes’ behalf. But Samour noted that the Colorado Supreme Court has liberally allowed defendants to alter their pleas in an effort to afford them fairness.

Defense attorney Daniel King told Samour that, since the arraignment, his team has made substantial progress in speaking with mental illness experts and poring over documents that may shed more light on Holmes' frame of mind the night of the shootings.

"The reason we're now ready is we have a diagnosis that is complete. I think it's remarkable we've made the progress we have," King said, adding that his team has needed to dig through nearly 40,000 pages of discovery and evidence.

If his request is approved, Holmes will have to undergo lengthy psychological tests to back up his claim. Although his conversations with his university psychiatrist and a notebook he sent her shortly before the attacks have been ruled privileged information, an insanity plea may remove that confidentiality and allow the state to administer tests that would delve deeper into Holmes' illness. Defense attorneys have objected to this.

Since Holmes' first hearing in July, attorneys on both sides have repeatedly peppered courtroom argument with their perceptions of his mental state. Two statements from attorneys boil down just how far apart they are:

"Because he wanted to kill all of them, he knew what he was doing," prosecutor Karen Pearson said during Holmes’ arraignment.

"Mr. Holmes suffers from a serious mental illness," his defense wrote in a court filing on April 29.

Here’s a look at some milestone events that led up to today’s plea:

• During the March 12 arraignment, William Sylvester, the first judge in the case, entered a not-guilty plea on the defendant’s behalf, as allowed by law. The court expected Holmes to plead not guilty by reason of insanity at the arraignment, but King told Sylvester defense lawyers were trapped in what he called a legal Catch-22: Because they didn’t know whether the prosecution would seek the death penalty, they couldn’t enter an appropriate plea—guilty, not guilty, insane or otherwise. (Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said in court on April 1 he would seek the death penalty, putting in motion today’s plea.)

• The day before the arraignment, Sylvester, who has since stepped down from the case because his schedule won’t permit a lengthy capital case, advised Holmes what an insanity plea legally entails. In a court notice, Sylvester wrote that the test for insanity applies to a “person who is so diseased or defective in mind at the time of the commission of the act as to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong.” But a legally insane person is not someone with “moral obliquity, mental depravity, or passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred, or other motives and kindred evil conditions.”

That’s the key difference, prosecutors allege: While fully sane, Holmes meticulously concocted a “detailed and complex” plan to slaughter patrons at the Aurora movie theater.

• In the week leading up to the arraignment, Holmes’ attorneys publicly announced through a court filing that he offered to plead guilty and avoid trial. But the prosecution not only turned down the request, it chastised Holmes’ lawyers, dubbing the proposal a “calculated attempt” to “deliberately prejudice the public, witnesses, and victims” against the prosecution’s case.

“[The guilty offer] was not only improper, but grossly improper,” the prosecution said, adding that a guilty plea only proved “that the defendant knows that he is guilty, the defense attorneys know that he is guilty, and that both of them know that he was not criminally insane.”

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• In hearings during the late summer and fall, the defense tried to establish that Holmes’ relationship with his university psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, continued until the July 20 shootings, and possibly afterward. This apparently was an attempt to prove he was still under mental health care—and, thus, his conversations with her are confidential.

Meanwhile, the prosecution asked several law enforcement witnesses during testimony to detail the weapons arsenal Holmes amassed. The array of ammunition and body armor—in addition to the booby-trapping of his apartment—illustrates a sane and well-crafted plot, the prosecution has implied.

Holmes, 25, was a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado before the shootings during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," the latest Batman movie. He faces 166 counts of murder, attempted murder and other charges. The trial is scheduled for February 2014.

But victim Marcus Weaver said there shouldn't even be a trial. Because Holmes already offered a guilty plea, Weaver told Yahoo News at the April 1 hearing that he'd rather not see a months-long trial and that Holmes should own up to his mistakes.

"It's anguishing. It's frustrating as a victim," Weaver said. "You're talking a whole calendar year before you get to a trial."

He added, “You have an obligation, if you’re guilty, to plead guilty."