James Holmes Might Be Crazy but Not Legally Insane

New details point to someone in a state of serious mental decline, but not someone unaware of the wrongfulness of his actions

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RJ Sangosti / Pool via Getty Images

James Holmes makes his first court appearance at the Arapahoe County on July 23, 2012 in Centennial, Colo.

A little more than a week after the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colo., we’re beginning to get some impression of James Holmes, the man who allegedly carried out the attack, and much of it is pointing to signs of mental illness. His appearance in court alone suggested that he might be dazed, delirious or heavily medicated. Secondly, the degree to which he had meticulously planned the attack suggests an obsession with violence, although we still don’t know if this stems from pure hatred or delusional impulse. His life appears to have been unraveling in the months prior to the assault when he withdrew from his graduate program. And his defense attorney has confirmed that he’d been seeing a psychiatrist.

(MORE: Colorado Shooting Suspect Charged with 142 Counts, Including First-Degree Murder, in Colorado Theater Shooting)

We don’t know why he was seeing the psychiatrist, but these details suggest someone in a state of serious mental decline. Holmes did not suddenly snap in a single moment. His months of preparation point to a seething desire to cause harm to others. Something had broken in him, creating a most unnatural desire to hurt those who had done him no wrong.

Ironically, this level of premeditation also likely means that his defense team will have a hard time arguing that he’s legally insane. Although standards vary from state to state, generally the bar for legal insanity is very high and requires that the perpetrator was unaware of the wrongfulness of their actions. A person who believes their neighbor is a space alien coming to suck out their brain and attacks him, an action believed to be self-defense, could qualify as insane, for instance. But Holmes’ crime wasn’t impulsive. It came out of long-term planning, so it will be harder to make the case that he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong.

(MOREErika Christakis: The Overwhelming Maleness of Mass Homicide)

But mental illness, in fact, is quite common among mass-homicide perpetrators. According to the U.S. Secret Service report on school shooters, 78% had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Sixty-one percent had a history of serious depression. And a full 98% perceived themselves as having experienced a recent major loss. Others had full psychotic breaks, with delusions driving them toward paranoia and violence.

During an interview following the Aurora shooting, a reporter asked me what was different about mass homicides compared with other violent crimes. Unlike most violence in society, which has been precipitously declining for two decades, mass homicides appear to have remained steady. Although their incidence has not, in fact, been increasing, neither are they declining like most violent acts, as my colleague criminologist James Fox has noted.

(MOREFerguson: Don’t Blame Batman for the Aurora Shootings)

It is difficult to pinpoint any one thing in society that may be responsible for this. Mass homicides don’t track well with the economy, social conflict, media-violence rates or much of anything else. But as Grant Duwe notes in his book on the history of mass homicides, although they occur throughout history, their rise began in the late 1960s and coincided with the deinstitutionalization movement, when mental asylums were closed down and services diminished. It is difficult to attribute causality between two events in history. Yet it is worth considering that although as a society we have gotten more peaceful as a whole, we have done little to either protect ourselves from or to help a tiny fraction of individuals who are both most in need of help and potentially of great danger to the rest of us.

15 comments
Paul
Paul

Make no mistake about it  this man is not ,and i repeat ,not faking it. He is insane and his brain is fried and of no use at all and will not be able to stand trial. Take the plea bargain and lock him up for life because if they win the court battle of not guilty by reasons of insanity there is always a possibility of release. I said at the start he was insane...brilliant student and no problems in his early years. He developed paranoid schizophrenia ( one of the worst kinds) through no fault of his own, in the prime of his life ( this is when it strikes) and spiralled down to a state of insanity he had no control over. Yes he should die for his actions but again he too is a victim here because he was helpless ,handcuffed by a disease that makes it impossible to distinguish between right and wrong. The irony and most numbing sad fact is that here was a student so gifted with a brilliant mind going into a field of neuroscience to help mentally ill people and was taken relatively swiftly by a disease of the mind that he was to champion in his further studies. Just look at the evidence because it doesn't lie. he warned the school psychiatrist he was a danger and they failed him and he warned the police of his booby trapped apartment ( the good side of his brain won out for a brief moment) .

The historyof evidence doesn't lie.

spilmaz
spilmaz

This author implies that those with psychiatric illness especially schizophreniaare more likely to be dangerous. We have no idea what mental illness Mr. Holmes had. Actually long term studies have shown that those with schizophrenia are no more violent than the average person. The author should've looked this up beforewriting the story and quite frankly I think it's very irresponsible to not have done this research before writing the story. Google schizophrenia violence and the American psychiatric Association for details. Having said that should we give Guns to people with serious mental illness or those with misdemeanors or felonies maybe not.

-a psychiatrist from Arizona

Paul
Paul

...paranoid sychizophrenia can be very dangerous and it can't be said that all sychizophrenics are not dangerous.

spilmaz
spilmaz

I wonder what the relationship Is with gun possessions or strength of gun laws and or police presence. That would tell a lot. The author fails to mention that statistically even seriously mentally ill people with schizophrenia are NOT more dangerous than people without schizophrenia Google American psychiatric association and schizophrenia violence. There have been numerous studies on this. I believe it's very irresponsible to imply otherwise without facts, especially if you are writing in a nationally publicated magazine such as Time. Having said that should we allow those with seriously mental illness or with misdemeanors access to any guns, maybe not.

Psychiatrist from AZ

FISHEYE
FISHEYE

Dont you think its odd that the guy with orange hair has blue eyes and the real james holmes has brown eyes

hugointerpreter
hugointerpreter

 Messages received on Wednesday 18th July 2012 implied that Holmes' actions were influenced (partly?) by identicle actions by those protected by impunity. Holmes is accused by prison staff of "faking" his behavior, relative to the fictions of impunity, false alibi etc. Amanda Knox accused, and INITIALLY faced charges for accusing, Italien police for hitting her on the back of the head, not because they did, but because another police force was thus threatened with exposure for an identicle act. You know it; Amanda was aquitted. See Twitter or Twitpic profile  @HugoInterpreter

Kevin Brent
Kevin Brent

And the PC Police are ever present here I see. 

Kevin Brent
Kevin Brent

The author is only defending Holmes, because Occutard. Probably had a portrait of Fuhrer Obama in his apartment  which was why the cops made up the story about the place being booby trapped. They just had to get that portrait of Obama out of there without anyone seeing it and posting it on You Tube.

Plumbline
Plumbline

Mental illness, insanity or well aware of his evil actions, this man must be either given the death penalty, or put away for life. The government authority is given by the people for the safety of society. This man has forfeited his life in one act of extreme violence against his fellow man, and will suffer the consequences. Perhaps as the reality of what he has done sinks in, he will lose what little sanity he may have left.

Richard Sutherland
Richard Sutherland

Damn Idiot.....ALthough we know that the system creates things like him we fail to do something about it before it happens and happens and happens and happens and happens.....yes it continues to happen and no one does anything substantial about it. Gun laws have to be changed....and happens and happens and happens and happens...........

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Legal insanity has always been a moving target, in the end often decided without much regard to the state of the individual involved.

Here, most people don't really care how or what type of insane he is, they simply want what small amount of revenge they can exact.

And my guess is that is what they will get.

WillLeach
WillLeach

This is one pf the few thoughtful pieces I have seen on the issue, thank you. This tragedy gives us a lot of unpleasant things to think about, yet most of the media and pundrity resort to sensationalism or justification of thier favored agenda. Time and Battleland in particular has become akim to my morning paper. Keep up the good work.

Pauline Houston
Pauline Houston

Although their incidence has not, in fact, been increasing, neither are they declining like most violent acts, as my colleague criminologist James Fox has noted...ChangeLife5.blogspot.com

mart
mart

 

Dr. Fergason: I agree with your

interpretation of the known facts in Mr. Holmes life that he was mentally

declining in the months and before the tragic theater shooting. I do not agree

with your conclusion, however, that Mr. Holmes is not legally insane. If you

read Black's Law Dictionary, you will see that the law does not define sanity

as the difference between right and wrong, as is often assumed. Rather, it

addresses issues such as a person's freedom from delusions and so forth. It

seeks to show the difference between psychosis and psychopath. In my opinion,

we not know whether Mr. Holmes was psychotic ( in a delusion) until he is

examined by experts. They will want to know whether he tried to flee from the

police (not doing so suggests psychosis, i.e., he did not think he'd done

anything wrong) why he tipped the police off about his apartment being booby

trapped (doing so suggests psych0sis, as why go to all that trouble to kill the

police yet tip them off?). The experts will look at Mr. Holmes' behavior to see

whether it is logical. As far as Mr. Holmes' planning, as is commonly known,

someone with paranoid schophrenia is very able to plan (e.g., the Unabomber).

They will also look at his motive: is it rational to shoot innocent people at a

movie theater? Indeed, other mass murders have had a more reasonable motive,

including the AZ shooter.

In my opinion, the theater shooting is

a tragedy for all concerned. It is tragic that that a bright young man who was

interested in discovering the very illness that has caused some much suffering.

My hope is that this tragedy will serve

as an inspiration for our nation to want to understand and find cures for

mental illness.