Mental Illness and the Batman Massacre
Since James Holmes’ now-infamous killing spree during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises last month, we’ve been fixated on what’s going to happen as our justice system inherits this sad mess.
Our collective reaction to this outrageous act of senseless violence has been a mix of compassion for the victims, questioning of our gun control laws, and curiosity about what the shooter’s fate will be in court. With that curiosity, there has also been much speculation and legal misunderstanding. Flip through any channel and you’ll hear words tossed out like “schizophrenia,” “competency,” “death penalty,” and “first degree murder.” Some of the victims were outraged when the beady-eyed-red-haired shooter waived time for arraignment during his first hearing. One victim, 22-year-old Carli Richards, thinks “death by firing squad would be totally justified” as punishment for the shooter.
We’ve reacted with a great deal of emotion and interest in Mr. Holmes’ fate. But at the end of the day, there are two distinct issues in this case: 1) Is Mr. Holmes competent to stand trial? And, 2) If he is competent, was he legally insane at the time of the killing spree?
COMPETENT TO STAND TRIAL
Competency is different than insanity in that the analysis of whether a defendant is competent has to do with his mental state NOW (not at the time of the incident).
One is considered competent to stand trial if he is able to rationally and factually understand the charges against him, and consult meaningfully with an attorney to aid with his defense. Whether one is “competent” has nothing to do with the merits of the case, the charges against him, or his possible defenses. It is a threshold issue that must be dealt with prior to hearing evidence, arguing substantive motions about the facts of the case, and the like.
When a defendant is found NOT competent to stand trial, the judge essentially puts the case on hold until the defendant is declared competent. At that point, the defendant is sent for diagnosis and treatment until he is declared competent. For example, Jared Loughner, the defendant who killed six and shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last year was declared not competent to stand trial and is currently undergoing treatment for schizophrenia in a Missouri prison facility. When he is fit to stand trial, the trial will commence.
THE INSANITY DEFENSE
Whereas the question of competency looks at a defendant’s current mental state, a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity looks at the defendant’s mental state AT THE TIME OF THE INCIDENT.
If a defendant is found competent to stand trial, but he can show that at the time of the incident he was suffering from mental illness so intensely that he could not distinguish between right and wrong, he may plead not guilty by reason of insanity. After the prosecution presents evidence that the defendant committed the act(s) in question, it’s up to the defendant to show proof of his diseased mind.
In the case of the Batman massacre, many armchair legal analysts point out facts that Mr. Holmes was “educated,” and “bright” as evidence that he was not legally insane at the time of the killings. Others are quick to point out that he was seeing a psychiatrist, or that he composed a notebook detailing his planned attack, which tends to show he was crazy.
In reality, assuming Mr. Holmes is found competent in the first place, at this juncture, we (the public) have no idea what the psychiatric evidence will show about his mental state at the time of his heinous act. We want answers, and we want answers now, but unfortunately we’ll all just have to wait and see. Sadly, the process could take many, many months.
For many, Mr. Holmes’ bright orange hair and dazed look in his mugshot and court hearings have brought a discussion of how mental illness impacts our criminal justice system for the first time. To be certain, mental illness is not new to the criminal justice system. Every day, hundreds of mentally ill defendants are tried for a great range of crimes in our courts. Just because one is “competent,” doesn’t mean that he is therefore not mentally ill. Many mentally ill defendants have baseline competency, yet still suffer from a huge range of mental problems and disorders. Likewise, just because someone is mentally ill doesn’t make them legally “insane.” In fact a very small percentage of criminal defendants assert the insanity defense, and an even smaller percentage (infinitesimal) is acquitted under the same.
It’s my hope that, in addition to greater scrutiny of our gun control laws, the Aurora tragedy will highlight mental illness in this country. What is it? Where does it come from? How do we recognize it and treat it effectively before innocent people are killed? The guns certainly killed the innocent victims in Aurora, but the man shot the guns. Let’s learn about the man.