The young man who entered a theater in Colorado and shot dozens of rounds as he walked through the building, killed 12 and wounded 58 others. James Holmes randomly shot at people as they ducked to save themselves. Of the 41 calls to 911, one of the scariest is the 27-second call where you can hear 30 shots being fired.
The prosecutors have charged Holmes with 166 counts of murder, attempted murder, and other charges. He was caught there and it seems pretty obvious that he’s guilty. . . right? The prosecution is going for the death penalty as they try to convict him.
From a legal standpoint, what does this mean? Does it mean he denies doing the acts? Killing so many people and injuring others? A plea of not guilty by reason of insanity doesn’t actually answer the question of whether he admits the acts or not. The definition of insanity in Colorado is:
. . . a person who is so diseased or defective in mind at the time of the commission of the act as to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong with respect to that act is not accountable.
This definition comes, in part, from something called the M’naghten Rule. In 1843, Daniel M’naghten attempted to kill the British prime minister. He missed and hit the wrong person. At the time of his trial, his lawyers asserted a mental illness defense and the British courts fashioned what came to be called the “M’naghten Rule.” Most states in the U.S. still use a form of this rule, even more than 100 years later. Although medical and psychological experts have tried to modify the rule over the years, the courts have stuck with the old rule.
What happens now in Colorado?
Mr. Holmes will be interviewed and tested by a team of medical and psychological experts. They will each attempt to answer the question of whether, at the time of the commission of the act, he was so mentally diseased that he couldn’t tell right from wrong. The difficulty lies in the problem that they must try to analyze what condition Holmes was in at the time of the commission of the act. Of course, this area of mental health is not cut and dried. The doctors will most certainly disagree.
If that happens, the case would go to trial with each side presenting their expert medical and psychological witnesses. The tried of fact would have to make a decision as to whether James Holmes was not guilty be reason of insanity.
If he found to be insane, he cannot be punished with the death penalty or even prison since no state in the U.S. does this to people who are mentally unable to distinguish right from wrong.
So, what happens next? We’ll look at that in my next post.