Legal Strategy Gets Complex As Charges Are Presented in Colorado Shooting Trial

Prosecutors have laid out 142 charges against James Holmes aimed at clearly proving that he planned out the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. But his defense team might try to prove that he's insane.

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Arapahoe County Sheriff Department
Arapahoe County Sheriff Department

The extreme nature of the grisly crime James Eagan Holmes is accused of was enough for Colorado prosecutors to charge him twice for each victim. He was charged with 24 counts of first-degree murder, for example, related to the 12 victims he is said to have killed. Although the total number of people he allegedly killed or wounded comes to 70, he actually faces 140 counts — charged double for each person he allegedly shot — plus two additional charges for explosives possession and unlawfully using weapons to commit his alleged crimes.

But upon reading the criminal complaint, each of the two charges per victim is different. For each person killed or wounded, one charge denotes premeditation “with the intent to cause the death,” while the other reads that Holmes, a former neurology student, had “an attitude of universal malice” and an “extreme indifference to human life,” which “created a grave risk of death.” So why both charges for one crime committed toward one victim? Because prosecutors, who will turn every stone to get a conviction for such a heinous crime, want to give jurors two ways of looking at just how guilty they think Holmes is.

(MORE: Colorado Shooting Suspect Charged with 142 Counts)

“What they’re doing is seeking to present to a jury two alternate theories for the establishment of guilt,” Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver and director of the school’s Constitutional Rights & Remedies Program, told TIME. He explained that prosecutors will try to prove that Holmes’ actions were of “universal malice,” that the shooter both planned to shoot innocent people and showed a callous disregard toward those he allegedly shot.

However, looking at both theories means the case is shaping up to be a years-long criminal proceeding — one in which prosecutors are likely to seek the death penalty. Colorado has executed only one prisoner since its capital punishment laws were reestablished in 1976. The state executed Gary Lee Davis in 1997 by lethal injection for the rape and murder of his neighbor Virginia May. Despite the rarity of the use of capital punishment in Colorado, Holmes’ case may be a candidate for it, although prosecutors have yet to announce whether they will seek it.

“All expectation is that the prosecution will seek the death penalty,” Kamin said. “It’s a very compelling case for a death sentence. The thing we do not know has to do with the mental state of Mr. Holmes, we don’t know any of the things the defense attorney will use to spin it.” That includes blaming his alleged actions on an unstable mental state, and it was revealed in recent days that Holmes may have been seeing a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado. “The defense may argue that he is not fit to stand trial, or that he is not guilty by reason of insanity, or they may try to use any mental problem he’s had to try to mitigate his (alleged) crime,” said Kamin.

(PHOTOS: Batman Movie Theater Shooting in Aurora, Colo.)

Stephen Reich, a New York-based forensic psychologist who is also a lawyer, said in Holmes’ case it may be the only viable option for the defense. “It’s a completely different question once an insanity plea is made,” he told TIME. “There’s little doubt if he pulled the trigger, but then they’re saying he did it for reasons of insanity.”

Reich used the example of John Hinckley who shot and wounded President Reagan in 1981 and the next year was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Instead of being imprisoned he was committed to a mental institution, where he remains today. “It means at the end of the day, the man may be in a mental hospital rather than a prison. But in order to go to a mental hospital, you have to make a credible case that this is the product of a mental disease.”

MORE: Alleged Colorado Movie-Theater Shooter Makes First Court Appearance

15 comments
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jacobdinolfo01
jacobdinolfo01

This is just proof of America's faults. There should not even be a trial held for this scumbag. He should be put to death in an incredibly painful manor, just so he can get a taste of what the family's of his victims are feeling. "Insane" or not, this guy is a monster and no one should even consider keeping this psychopath alive on Earth with other humans. His relatives should disown him and all him former friends feel sorry they knew him. He killed innocent people for no reason at all. He thought he was smart enough to let everyone know he did it and still get away with a slap on the wrist. His smile sickens me and it should sicken any other human being on this planet. 

Beanybag
Beanybag

 Disagree, the justice system is one of America's stronger points when implemented correctly. He'll get what a jury of his peers feels he deserves, which could very well be the death penalty. But he is still deserving of a trial. No one can decide who and who isn't deserving of one, not you, not the people, and certainly not the President (despite his personal orders of execution on American citizens). To do otherwise undermines our rights as citizens.

Karl Tech
Karl Tech

I can't wait to see the jury rule this scumbag guilty. It would be a win win knowing he's no longer able to hold that nauseating grin on his face, from lethal injection or getting it beaten to a pulp by fellow inmates. If only this were going to court in Texas, where they aren't afraid to use the death penalty...

Earl Hickey
Earl Hickey

What gets me is the layers that are acting on his behalf, that will be boostrapping him out of the charges throughout the whole trial, all because they are fame seekers, not because they are acting in the interests of justice.

Damn those lawyers who have elected to defend this shitwad

Earl Hickey
Earl Hickey

Put 'im down, the insanity defense is a croak, he's of sound mind, he planned it out carefully. Make no mistake about it. If I were on the jury I would vote for the death penalty hands down. He has no business living among people, even among prison inmates.

Branden_Z
Branden_Z

The nice thing is even if he doesn't get the death penalty and goes into general pop he'll be death within a week. They already have him away from the other inmates so they don't kill him.

D
D

“an attitude of universal malice” and an “extreme indifference to human life,” which “created a grave risk of death.”  - what kind of BS is that? What is that supposed to mean? He SHOT 70 people and killed 12 of them - Gee, what do YOU think??? What a crock of a statement.

avik
avik

It will be a defeat for all the people who were affected by the incident directly or indirectly if he gets away with an insanity plea. He'll be smirking all the way to the asylum. 

If the laws can't prevent someone from garnering weapons to kill people and then can't punish someone who manages to do just that, then what's the use of having them in the first place?

Jamie
Jamie

i cant beleive this guy. really who does he think he is hurting this people like this

Joe Gill
Joe Gill

 Take note  of   all this talk about strategizing and legal defenses and such.  All of this is , in a sense, buying in to the lawyers and "experts" who will profit from this horrible crime. All of this verbage comes down to trying to establish one simple thing..motive. Why did he do it? Well, I for one don't care why. He did it, he was caught red handed and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. So remember all the legal manuvering , the endless appeals and delays serve really only one purpose..to make the legal community richer.

Cthulhu Shrugged
Cthulhu Shrugged

A defense attorney has one and only one job: to provide the best possible legal defense for their client.  They are not doing their job if they do not exhaust every defense available to them.

It is certainly not to appease the peanut galley calling for a tree branch and a rope.  Let the justice system run its course... for all its imperfections, it's actually pretty darn good at what it's there for.  Remember, Holmes' fate will be decided not by a judge or a legal team, but by a jury of citizens.

Patrick Wilson
Patrick Wilson

This exactly. The justice system has a responsibility to give a defendant  - ANY defendant - the best possible defense. This is a cornerstone of our entire justice system. Without this basic principle, we might as well bring back mob justice.

John
John

"Legal strategy gets complex"

Get this right and get it now:  There is NOTHING complex about a guilty plea.