Colorado Theater Gunman: Sane or Not?

Jurors must decide whether James Holmes met Colorado's threshold for an insanity verdict, by suffering from mental illness so severe that it rendered him unable to tell right from wrong at the time of the shootings.

They saw more than 1,500 photographs. They heard more than 250 witnesses. They listened to 10 psychiatrists. They handled three guns.

Jurors in the Colorado theater shooting case will hear closing arguments and instructions from the judge this week. Then they'll retreat into an oversized jury room -- the only one in the courthouse that can hold all the evidence -- to decide what of all this matters as they determine whether James Holmes was legally insane when he killed 12 people at a crowded midnight movie premiere.

Jurors have been deluged with information during nearly three months of testimony, and it's impossible to know how all of it will play into their deliberations.

The only question they must answer is whether Holmes met Colorado's threshold for an insanity verdict, by suffering from mental illness so severe that it rendered him unable to tell right from wrong at the time of the shootings.

Colorado law puts the burden of proof in these cases on the state: Prosecutors must show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that despite Holmes' mental disorder, he was capable of appreciating the wrongfulness of the shootings, which also wounded 58 people and left 12 others injured in the chaos that ensued.

The hideous details of the attack, the heartbreaking survival stories, the signs of mental illness that Holmes showed well before the events of July 20, 2012 -- they shouldn't matter. In legal terms, all the jury should focus on is whether the state has met its burden. But extraneous details that prosecutors and defense attorneys pile onto jurors often can make or break a case.

"This was a terrible tragedy in which great harm was caused for large numbers of people. It's virtually impossible to divorce that question of insanity from its context," said Valerie Hans, a Cornell Law School professor who has studied juries and the insanity plea. "I really feel for jurors who have to listen to wrenching testimony and steel themselves and look at the law and see which legal option really is the best match."

If they agree Holmes is insane, he would be committed indefinitely to a state mental hospital. If they convict him, he faces life in prison, or execution.

A copy of Colorado's insanity statute will guide them in the jury room as they consider Holmes' mental state that night, analyzing his medical records, family history, police reports and journal. Four of the psychiatrists who testified were asked to test his sanity. Two declared him sane and two others declared him insane.

Colorado allows jurors to question witnesses during trial, and they often did. A defense psychiatrist fielded more than 50 questions from jurors last week, about delusions, schizophrenia, mental illness and her methods for determining someone's sanity. Merely having a mental illness, or suffering from delusional thinking, does not mean someone is insane, she said.

This hazy line between severe mental illness and legal insanity can be difficult to distinguish, especially for people without expert guidance.

Hans did opinion surveys after John Hinckley Jr. was found not guilty by reason of insanity for trying to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Many people had wildly exaggerated ideas about what the term meant.

"We asked people what the legal definition was of legal sanity, and they just didn't know," she said.

In Holmes' case, jurors have seen more than 70 shooting survivors, some in wheelchairs or missing limbs.

They heard doctors diagnose Holmes with a spectrum of mental illnesses, from schizophrenia to full-blown psychosis. They were told he had a delusion that he could increase his own self-worth by murder. They thumbed through his spiral notebook, which contained elaborate plans for the massacre, along with incoherent ramblings and strange symbols. They handled Holmes' arsenal of weapons and body armor. They saw a jail video of him running head-first into walls.

They watched nearly 22 hours of interviews, recorded two years after the crime, in which Holmes calmly describes taking aim at fleeing moviegoers and says his mind was "kind of falling apart."

"In a case of this magnitude, it's easy for a jury to get overloaded by just the voluminous amount of information that has been presented to them," said Steven Pitt, a forensic psychiatrist who isn't involved in the Holmes trial. "But don't underestimate the ability of juries to synthesize volumes and volumes of information and ultimately do the right thing."

Pitt said the state's insanity statute will provide a "base camp" as jurors explore the evidence. They've been developing a narrative in their minds and now must come together to discuss how it matches with the legal options, Hans said.

"The question in an insanity case is not whether he knew he was hurting others, but whether the reasons he hurt them reflected an understanding that he was wrong to do so," said Christopher Slobogin, who teaches law and psychiatry at Vanderbilt Law School.

Across the nation, even defendants with a history of mental problems can fail in their insanity defense.

Eddie Ray Routh, the former Marine convicted in February of killing "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle and another man, was hospitalized multiple times for psychiatric treatment and prescribed medication to treat schizophrenia. He spoke of pig-human hybrids and the apocalypse.

But jurors later said they were not convinced he was having a psychotic episode, and said he knew the consequences when he pulled the trigger.

On the other hand, even a person who knows it's wrong to kill can be found insane.

Andrea Yates, of Houston, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2006 after drowning her five children in their bathtub, knew it was wrong but believed she was saving them from hell.

And, as the Hinckley case showed, even someone who commits a crime as outrageous as trying to kill a president might not be held legally responsible.

"You never know what a jury is going to do," Slobogin said. "It could go so many different ways."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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