James Holmes–Part III

Okay.  I thought two short posts about a mental illness defense in the James Holmes case in Colorado would be enough.  But. . .NO!  You may recall Mr. Holmes was the man who armed himself and walked into a theater in Colorado, opened fire, and killed several people.  Originally, his lawyers had said he would plead not guilty be reason of insanity.

As I wrote earlier, this is a tough defense to be successful.  James Holmes is essentially saying that he did the act, but his mental state was such that he couldn’t understand what he was doing and that it was illegal.

Within this week, his lawyers are now saying that he will plead guilty to second degree murder instead of what he’s charged with—first degree murder.  The difference between the two is premeditation.  Second degree murder is usually defined as the unlawful taking of a life by intentionally doing it.  First degree murder is intentional but also carries the requirement that the act is premeditated—something that appears to be pretty obvious when James Holmes prepared for the slaughter and heavily armed himself.

The biggest aspect for Mr. Holmes is the death penalty.  Apparently, in Colorado, people convicted of first degree murder are subject to the death penalty; second degree murder is not.

Here’s my problem with this:  if Mr. Holmes was so mentally ill as to not be able to comprehend that his actions were illegal, how can he now plead guilty to those acts?  If he pleads guilty, he has to say that he knew what he was doing and knew that it was illegal.  I don’t know if his lawyers are crazy or Mr. Holmes is crazy.  It’s quite unusual to try to assert both defenses.

Has someone pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty before?  It’s happened often.  One of the most celebrated cases occurred in Minnesota in the 1800’s.  The outlaw Jesse James and his gang robbed a bank in the small town of Northfield, Minnesota.  They got the money but as they were coming out of the bank, the town had armed themselves and shot-up the gang pretty badly.  Jesse James and his brother Frank got away.  Their sidekicks, the Younger brothers, weren’t so lucky.  Cole Younger was captured and charged with first degree murder for killing the teller inside the bank during the robbery.  He pleaded guilty to second degree murder to avoid the death penalty (then in existence in Minnesota.  It’s since been abolished)  He lived out the rest of his sentence and was finally released in the 20th Century.

About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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