On July 20, 2012 during a midnight screening of the movie The Dark Knight Rises at a suburban Denver movie theater, a gunman opened fire killing 12 people and wounding 70 others.
Prosecutors say James Holmes, now 27 years-old, is the cold-blooded killer responsible for one of the deadliest mass shootings in the country. Now 1,011 days after the attack, Holmes is on trial for 166 counts including, first-degree murder and attempted murder. Holmes faces the death penalty if convicted. He’s plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
Courtroom watchers and pundits better settle in for a marathon, and not a sprint. This will undoubtedly be a long trial given the number of counts (166 in all), and an obligation that the prosecution must prove each beyond a reasonable doubt to expect a guilty verdict to be returned.
This trial will be televised live on local Denver channels and the Internet. The single camera fixed in the courtroom will not show the jury; only the judge, Holmes and both teams of lawyers will be visible.
Why has it taken so long to get to trial? Observers of our justice system are familiar with the typical “hurry up and wait”… but it is especially true in this case because of the insanity defense, which means lots of experts, tests, mitigation discovery, and therefore additional delays.
As I said on The Insider, much like the Boston Marathon bombing trial, you can expect the defense attorneys to admit guilt to try and build favor with the jury. Their focus will be on the punishment phase to keep Holmes out of the death chamber. It has been widely reported that the defense sought to enter into a case settlement where Holmes would admit guilt and spend the rest of his life in prison, without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors rejected that overture, insisting that this was a case where nothing short of the death penalty would be satisfactory.
The issue of sanity goes hand in hand with issue of life or death. We do not execute insane people in the United States. And as part of this process, the state of Colorado ordered two separate mental evaluations of Holmes to determine whether he was insane at the time of the crime. These reports could conflict and put greater emphasis on the prosecution to show Holmes knew what he was doing.
There’s a big difference between legal definitions of sanity and insanity, and simply being “two full scoops of crazy.” For purposes of a criminal trial, sanity does NOT mean mental health; it only refers to recognizing the wrongfulness of your conduct, or put another way, to be legally insane, one must not appreciate that what they were doing was against the law. Here, since the evidence suggests Holmes engaged in lengthy preparation, hoarded ammunition, booby trapped his apartment, and engaged in efforts to hide his appearance, the prosecution appears to have the stronger case where “appreciating wrongfulness” is concerned. That said, I think people struggle with the tension between the heinousness of the act, and the idea that any sane person could do this.
Additionally you should know, the defense of insanity, while enormously talked about, is actually rare in the courtroom. It is used in less than 1% of the cases, and is only successful 25% of the time when it is used.
Judge Carlos A. Samour, Jr. has prepared the legal teams and the jurors for a long and emotional trial. He asked the lawyers to proceed efficiently and politely and expects them to “zealously” make their arguments. The court placed instructions on every seat in the gallery asking people to discretely leave if they begin to feel overwhelmed.
Holmes’ appearance has changed since his first court appearance with bright red hair and a jail jumpsuit to match. He’s dressed in street clothes and his hair is cut and back to its natural brown color.
I’ll be following this trial and posting updates. If you have questions – please ask me on Twitter @DarrenKavinoky.
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