CENTENNIAL–The accused Aurora theater shooter entered a plea Monday of not guilty by reason of insanity, playing the only card he may have in an effort to save himself from execution.
Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour Jr. said he would decide whether to accept the insanity defense for James Eagan Holmes before a May 31 hearing, but added that such a plea would be “consistent with fairness and justice.”
Chief Judge William Sylvester entered what he called a “standard not guilty” plea on Holmes’ behalf in March after his defense attorneys said they were unprepared to decide on a plea. At Monday’s hearing, attorney Daniel King said the defense decided to change the plea after gathering more information about his client’s mental state.
“We now have a diagnosis that is complete,” said King.
The move is certain to trigger state and national debate over the appropriate use of the insanity defense. Proving legal insanity is difficult even when the defendant seems out of touch with reality or has exhibited erratic behavior, as Holmes has done.
In Colorado, juries rarely find defendants not guilty by reason of insanity, even though under state law the burden of proof rests with the prosecution to show that the defendant was sane beyond a reasonable doubt.
“At least in the instructions given to the jury, the burden is entirely on the prosecution,” said Denver lawyer Scott Robinson. “In reality, jurors do look to the defense to prove insanity.”
Cases that do result in a successful insanity plea have one thing in common: Experts on both sides who agree that a defendant meets the legal definition of insane, said Robinson.
“Few insanity pleas are successful, and when they are successful, it’s almost always the result of unanimity among the examiners,” said Robinson.
Jurors are also less likely to favor an insanity defense when the stakes are higher, such as in trials involving multiple murders or when the death penalty is sought, as is case with the Holmes.
“I do not recall a capital case in which we had the sanity issue raised,” said former Denver prosecutor Karen Steinhauser.
An insanity plea also carries risks for the defense. Under rules issued by the court, Holmes must cooperate with doctors during a mandatory mental-health evaluation, and under Colorado law, any information gathered could be used against him during the sentencing phase.
The defense is expected to challenge the constitutionality of that law in the weeks leading to Samour’s decision on the plea.
Despite the drawbacks, legal analysts agree that the insanity defense is Holmes’ best hope for avoiding a death sentence. District Attorney George Brauchler announced in April that he would seek the death penalty for Holmes, who’s accused of killing 12 moviegoers at the July 20 premier of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises at the Aurora Century 16.
The 25-year-old former University of Colorado neuroscience graduate student also booby-trapped his Aurora apartment to explode prior to the shooting. Police were able to disarm the homemade bombs.
Given that Holmes’ guilt is not seriously in question, legal experts agreed that his defense attorneys have few options beyond arguing that Holmes could not distinguish right from wrong at the time of the massacre.
“This crime was super-premeditated, there was an enormous amount of planning, and there’s no real question about his guilt. So what else can he plead?” said former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman. “Expect a battle of the experts, with the taxpayers paying the bill.”