Defense starts questioning doctor in theater shooting trial
CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — Defense attorneys in the Colorado theater shooting trial face new challenges as they try to counter 22 hours of sometimes chilling video of James Holmes talking in a flat, mechanical tone about killing strangers to increase his self-worth.
In short, reluctant answers, Holmes tells a psychiatrist who evaluated him for the court that he felt nothing as he took aim at fleeing moviegoers. He is haltingly awkward as he blurts out that he feared being stopped from committing what he acknowledged was a crime.
His responses are brief and monosyllabic.
Dr. William Reid strung them together to conclude that whatever mental illness Holmes was suffering, he was legally sane when he killed 12 people and wounded 70 others during the midnight premiere of a Batman film.
When defense attorney Daniel King finally had a chance to cross-examine Reid on Thursday, he sought to blame Holmes’ mental illness for the violence and asked whether Holmes’ memories could have changed in the two years between the shooting and the videotaped interview.
King asked Reid if it was correct to say “absent his mental condition, we would not be here today?”
“That is correct,” Reid said.
“Is it also accurate to say that if Holmes wasn’t mentally ill this crime would not have taken place?”
Again, Reid said, “That is correct.”
King will continue to question Reid on Friday.
Beyond the legal issues in Reid’s testimony, experts say Holmes’ lawyers also will have to overcome the emotional impact on jurors who have heard the killer in his own, stilted words.
Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. has repeatedly told jurors they can only consider the video to help them answer the question of whether Holmes was sane. But experts say Holmes’ affect will be hard to ignore.
“They are looking at him as a human being and trying to interpret his soul, his character, his spirit,” said Joseph Rice, managing partner of the Jury Research Institute, a California-based trial consulting firm. “All those things are intangible and very subjective. If he appears to be this cold, unfeeling individual, he’s a threat, he’s scary, he’s not a human. If jurors were to reach those conclusions, they might say this is who the death penalty is for.”
The video offered a rare glimpse into the mind of a mass shooter, and experts say it could be as powerful to jurors as watching Holmes take the stand, which defense attorneys have said isn’t likely to happen.
Defense attorney Kristen Nelson tried to reiterate Thursday that the video violates Holmes’ right against self-incrimination, prompting a lecture from the judge, who already ruled it admissible.
“He’s providing his own narrative, and it seems to be playing right into the hands of the prosecution,” said Alan Tuerkheimer, principal of Trial Methods, a Chicago-based jury consulting firm. “Jurors are probably thinking they are getting to know him.”
Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the July 2012 attack. In Colorado, prosecutors have the burden of persuading jurors to reject that claim, and they played nearly all 22 hours of Reid’s conversations with Holmes in an effort to show he was rational and knew what he was doing was wrong.
Reid pressed hard to draw Holmes out. In clips shown Thursday, Holmes gives vague and sometimes contradictory answers about whether there were two versions of himself struggling for control.
Reid asks if an evil version of Holmes committed the shooting.
“Nah,” Holmes replies, flatly. “I don’t think this is an evil James Holmes.”
The challenge for defense attorneys will be to “educate jurors about why what they are seeing is more a validation of his illness, as opposed to just being a validation of his evil,” Rice said.
Reid concluded that Holmes suffered “schizotypal personality disorder,” evidenced by his inability to form close friendships, strange beliefs, odd speech, inappropriate or limited facial expressions, and other issues.
Defense attorneys will soon start calling their own mental health experts, at least one of whom found Holmes insane. They have said 20 doctors who treated Holmes agreed he suffered a psychotic illness.
King asked Reid whether his diagnosis could be wrong. Reid agreed it is not uncommon for doctors’ findings to differ.
Reid agreed with King that Holmes was severely mentally ill, which could help spare Holmes’ life during the trial’s penalty phase.
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