Why was James Holmes, the Movie Theater Killer, spared the Death Penalty? He was given ‘Life with no Possibility of Parole’.


Why was the insanity plea nullified in the movie theater killings in Aurora, Colorado? The answer is simple – because the carnage was so horrendous that there was too much public pressure in favor of the death penalty. There was no way the insanity plea would be allowed.

Nonetheless, Holmes was clearly and incontrovertibly psychotic and delusional. It was the only reason for the horrendous murders.

Shortly after midnight on July 20, 2012, James Holmes dressed, in combat body armor entered through an emergency exit at the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises,” in Aurora, Colorado. He threw gas canisters, then opened fire with a shotgun, assault rifle and a semi-automatic pistol. He killed 12 people: Jonathan Blunk, Alexander Boik, Jesse Childress, Gordon Cowden, Jessica Ghawi, John thomoas Larimer, Matthew McQuinn, Alex Sullivan, Alexander Teves, Rebecca Ann Wingo, Micayla Medek and six year old Veronica Moser-Sullivan. He wounded 70 other victims. He surrendered to police outside the theater without a fight. He told them that he had set up a lethal booby trap in his apartment which he hoped would divert police away from the theater. The 27 year old Holmes said he had been obsessed with thoughts of killing since he was ten. He hid his homicidal thoughts and plans from his psychiatrist. He revealed his secrets to her in a notebook that he sent her just before his killing spree.

The only issue that generated confusion in this trial is the misguided and outmoded ‘innocent by reason of insanity’ plea. [see – “It’s Time to Scrap, “Innocent by Reason of Insanity. Time to change to “Guilty By Reason of Insanity”] For starters we have the archaic and insulting concept of insanity. It has no credible definition, and our understating of psychosis has changed since the civil war. It should be called delusion. The insanity defense began in English common law, in 1843 with the M’Naghten case. M’Naghten killed the secretary to the prime Minister in a failed assassination attempt on the prime minister. He was found that he couldn’t appreciate the nature of his actions during the commission of his crime, and did not know right from wrong.

In this trial the prosecution circumvented the insanity plea when two state-appointed psychiatrists testified that Holmes knew right from wrong and therefore the ‘insanity defense’ did not apply. The prosecution prevailed against the two defense psychiatrists who claimed that Holmes’ schizophrenia led to a psychotic break, and his powerful delusions drove him to carry out the shootings. “The evidence is clear that he could not control his thoughts, … he could not control his actions, and he could not control his perceptions,” defense attorney Dan King said during closing arguments.

The trial actually operated in the correct manner despite the rulings. The only question at issue was whether or not to put Holmes to death. The jury ruled ‘no’ on the basis of his psychiatric condition.

Here’s the problem for the law. It is a misunderstanding of a schizophrenic delusion that one does not know the nature of one’s actions or one does not know right from wrong. Neither characterization of psychosis is valid. This would only be true in a state of toxic confusion, with a brain tumor, or a fugue state in temporal lobe epilepsy. Although Holmes was deluded, he knew what he was doing and that it was wrong, as did M’Naghten. As opposed to 1843, we no longer think that schizophrenia as a state of demonic possession or other such theories.

Consciousness is organized as a play in the theater of the brain – The “play” is an entire representational world that consists of a cast of characters who relate together by feeling, scenarios, as well as plots, set designs, and landscape. In schizophrenia consciousness is altered due to something genetic, epigenetic or most likely in the context of damage due to early deprivation or abuse. As a result of a psychotic break, consciousness loses the intactness of the play itself and the intactness of the self. The damage to these plays derives from an unmanageable limbic rage where the cortex cannot encompass this powerful rage in a cohesive way. When the self and its primal play flies apart, it generates a state of terror, the dimensions of which are far more powerful than regular anxiety. This terror/rage is the central characteristic of all of the psychotic character worlds. [See – “The Secret World of Schizophrenia – The tragedy of a promise unfulfilled.“]

Although the self and the plays are fragmented, consciousness continues its ongoing process of playwriting. Consequently, the cortical imagination now writes new plays that are anchored in this limbic rage/terror experience. Disrupted plays of a fragmented self and terror-filled feeling and other-worldly plots are written and inhabited. The feeling of these other-worldly plays are captured by words like awe, dread, or horror. This is where delusions come in. Clearly, people with paranoid schizophrenia are delusional when they hear voices that are not there or have religious ideas that they are God or Jesus or the devil, or that God is talking to them, or that they have to follow command voices, or that they are space aliens with mental powers, or that they can hear radio waves from their teeth, or that their thoughts are being broadcasted, or that they have microchips implanted in their brains. In paranoid states with delusions that the FBI or the KGB are spying on one. In catatonia it is delusional to believe that intentional muscular action or intentional speech would cause a nuclear holocaust and destroy the world. Or a physical movement would unleash a murderous rage. (I suspect that Holmes had some form of catatonia. Of course I don’t really know, never having talked to him).

Delusions with someone like Holmes do not just come out of the blue. The description of the loss of a girlfriend and then the inability to pass his courses as he fell apart is a very common story.

This is the context when delusions arise. The rage at his girlfriend could well have gotten displaced into a horrifying story that was not very different from the Batman movie itself. Instead of being in a position to mourn his pain, Homes acted on his horror story.

Now things get tricky. There is a difference between having all kinds of violent fantasies and acting them out. Violent fantasies are not illegal.

Once a crime is committed, it no longer can be understood just by the state of mind of the accused. Because now there are victims involved. There are consequence for other people. In Holmes’ case there are the people he killed; there is the pain and torture of the people he injured; there is the trauma for them and everyone else in the theater; there is the extended pain and horror for the families where the ripples extend outwards for generations. Holmes did more damage than the Boston Bombing Massacre.

In our legal tradition there has to be an intent to do something that one knows is wrong. There must be the existence of a ‘guilty mind’. Without this capacity one can’t be guilty of a crime. This is the fallacy. In a psychotic state the object of a crime may be displaced, but in fact the intent is clear. This is always the case. It is of interest that the court makes an exception regarding ‘mens rea’, guilty mind, for drunk driving. It doesn’t allow an insanity plea. There is more of an absence of ‘guilty mind’ in a drunk driving death than there is in the delusions of James Holmes. This exception reveals the faulty assumptions of the law. This can be rectified with ‘guilty be reason of insanity’.

As I said in the other article, “A deeper understanding of a psychotic character also muddies the water between the claim of no responsibility or some responsibility. For instance, I evaluated a woman, many years ago after she had jumped out a third story window and lived. She claimed it wasn’t a suicide attempt because she was certain that she would ascend to heaven in her body. She believed she would be going up, not down. Yes, she was deluded. The real truth was, on further evaluation that she was indeed suicidal, even though at the moment of jumping, she was ‘temporarily insane’ and believed her story. The ‘tell’ is that she didn’t decide to ascend to heaven from the ground, where if she failed, no harm, no foul. Even though she honestly believed she’d go up when she went out the window, it was a suicide attempt. Even though her right hand did not know what her left hand was doing, her action decision was unerringly accurate. She was going to go down to her death. Despite her deluded belief, she was in fact trying to kill herself.”

There are two conflicting issues in the quest for justice – he state of mind of the perpetrator as well as accountability and responsibility for damage done. Both of these have to be weighed.

My current position is that by committing a crime that is sufficiently horrific one deserves to forfeit one’s life. I have gone back and forth on this a number of times in my life. In regard to the death penalty, people of conscience can disagree. I do not presume I am right. And at the same time I am certainly predisposed towards not giving the death penalty to those in extreme psychotic states.

For sure ‘Guilty be Reason of Delusion’ would separate the findings of guilt or innocence from the punishment imposed. If a person was found ‘innocent by reason of insanity’, he would be sentenced to a psychiatric facility. If he were later declared to be ‘healthy’ he could then be freed. Then he would bear no accountability or responsibility for harm done. With ‘Guilty be Reason of Delusion’ the punishment phase can be done appropriately, where the state of mind of the defendant should come into play. ‘Guilty by reason of delusion’ would give a nuanced and responsive punishment, taking all factors into consideration.

I respect the wisdom of having all twelve jurors be unanimous for a punishment decision. It is easy to sit here and say how I would have voted. But in truth I don’t know. When a juror actually has the life or death decision in his hand, things are different. It is the real thing. In that regard it is the best of an imperfect system.

The jury found Holmes guilty of attempted murder on all of the 140 counts against him for the 70 people wounded in the shooting. Additionally, he was found guilty of one count of possession or control of an explosive or incendiary device. As it turned out the jury overrode the denial of the ‘innocent by reason insanity’ plea anyway. The jury operated on the basis of ‘Guilty by Reason of Delusion’. And in the punishment phase even though nine jurors chose the death penalty, two had misgivings, and one was opposed, James Holmes was given life without parole.

I respect the decision of the jury. The archaic law needs to be changed.

1 reply
  1. Jenny DuClos
    Jenny DuClos says:

    Very well written piece and thank you for writing it. As a Bostonian, and psychotherapist, I would have to strongly disagree that Holmes did more damage than the Boston Marathon Bombings. The lasting injuries, PTSD and grief from the attack, are ongoing. No need to mention one as worse than another. Both incidents were unimaginably evil and tragic.


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