Colorado Movie Theater Massacre

Long odds for insanity defense in theater shooting trial, Uphill battle for lawyers


In this Jan. 20, 2015 courtroom file sketch, James Holmes, left, and defense attorney Tamara Brady are depicted, as they sit in court on the first day of jury selection in Holmes' trial, at the Arapahoe County Justice Center, in Centennial, Colo. Jan. 20, 2015. Holmes faces trial starting on April 27, 2015, in the mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that left 12 dead and 70 wounded. (AP Photo/Jeff Kandyba, file)

In this Jan. 20, 2015 courtroom file sketch, James Holmes, left, and defense attorney Tamara Brady are depicted, as they sit in court on the first day of jury selection in Holmes’ trial, at the Arapahoe County Justice Center, in Centennial, Colo. Jan. 20, 2015. Holmes faces trial starting on April 27, 2015, in the mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that left 12 dead and 70 wounded. (AP Photo/Jeff Kandyba, file)

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CENTENNIAL, Colorado (AP) — The key to the death penalty trial of a man who methodically shot at moviegoers at a Batman movie premiere will be what was going on inside his mind as he threw smoke canisters and then marched up and down the aisles, firing at anyone who tried to flee.

James Holmes acknowledges killing 12 people and wounding 70 more inside the packed theater on July 20, 2012, but has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His lawyers will argue that he was too addled by mental illness to tell right from wrong.

And unlike most other states, Colorado puts the burden on prosecutors in insanity cases: They must convince jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Holmes was sane. It adds another obstacle for a state that has already spent millions to manage an outsized number of victims, hundreds of witnesses and more than 85,000 pages of evidence.

Even so, experts say Holmes faces long odds. Insanity defenses are successful in only 25 percent of felony trials nationally, even less so in homicides.

“Lay people tend to think of people with mental illness as extremely dangerous, and that also influences jurors, especially if someone has killed someone,” said Christopher Slobogin, a professor of law and psychiatry at Vanderbilt Law School. “Usually there’s evidence of intent and planning that seems to be counterintuitive to the lay view of mental illness.”

Winning a trial on mental-health grounds is rare, but then again, so is a jury trial for a mass shooter, many of whom are killed by police, kill themselves or plead guilty.

A review of 160 mass shootings found killers went to trial 74 times, and just three were found insane, according to Grant Duwe, a Minnesota corrections official who wrote the book “Mass Murder in the United States: A History.”

Holmes was arrested almost immediately, while stripping off his body armor in the parking lot outside the Century 16 movie theater. That he was the shooter who replaced Hollywood violence with real human carnage has never been in doubt. The victims include a 6-year-old girl, two active-duty servicemen, a single mom and an aspiring broadcaster who had survived a mall shooting in Toronto. Several died shielding friends or loved ones.

SADIE GURMAN

Source: AP

Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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