James Holmes insanity defense: Judge sees 'good cause' to allow plea change
Lawyers for accused Aurora movie theater shooter James Holmes said he is mentally ill, justifying a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge said he would decide this month whether to accept the plea change.
James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, sought Monday to change his plea from not guilty to not guilty by reason of insanity. A judge said there was “good cause” to allow the change but that he would not decide whether to accept the new plea until later in the month.Skip to next paragraph
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“Allowing Mr. Holmes to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity would be consistent with fairness and justice," Judge Carlos Samour announced to the packed courtroom.
In Colorado, a defendant must enter a plea at their arraignment, but may change it later if they can show strong reasoning for the switch. Mr. Holmes’ counsel said Monday that the change is warranted since they have now had time to consult with experts and obtain a diagnosis of mental illness for their client.
If granted in a hearing on May 31, the new plea sets the stage for the defense to argue that Mr. Holmes could not distinguish between right and wrong when he opened fire at a midnight showing at the suburban movie theater last July. Dozens of people were wounded in that attack.
Prosecutors announced last month that they would seek the death penalty in the case, and experts say an insanity defense is by far the best argument Holmes’ counsel can make to save his life.
But it’s by no means a straightforward case.
“Sometimes evil looks a whole lot like insanity,” says Rashmi Goel, a criminal law expert at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “In general when people commit these kinds of atrocities our human response is to say they must be insane because what sane person would do this? But the standards for medical and legal insanity are not the same.”
Neither is the legal definition of insanity the same in every state. In Colorado, for instance, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to determine “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is sane once an insanity plea is introduced. In most states, it’s the opposite – the defense must affirmatively prove insanity. (Four states – Kansas, Montana, Idaho and Utah – don’t allow insanity defenses at all.)