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Colorado theater trial verdict: Rush to judgment or justice?

It was easier for the jurors not to accept that mental illness is like cancer, a disease, as the defense purported during its closing.

After almost three months of trial, over 250 witnesses, 166 counts and thousands of pieces of evidence, including a 22-hour videotaped psychiatric interview, it took 12 jurors only 12 hours to convict James Eagan Holmes of the deaths of 12 people.

On July 20, 2012, Holmes entered a Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” and committed one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. Seventy people were wounded, and 12 — ranging from the ages of 6 to 51 — were killed. 

Holmes was found guilty of each of the charged crimes for each victim, the 12 deceased and the 70 wounded, under two theories – one for murder or attempted murder, intentional, and one for one for murder or attempted murder, with extreme indifference. Holmes was also found guilty of possessing explosives.

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What was shocking was the brevity of the deliberations. After so much evidence and so many witnesses, the jury might have taken at least a week to come to a conclusion. Considering the first day of deliberations they were not allowed to have a guide or index of the evidence to aid them, it seemed just organizing the voluminous evidence would have taken a few days. Then reviewing the evidence could take yet another few days. Just videotaped psychiatric interview of Holmes called for over 20 hours of deliberation time – not that the jury is any way compelled to re-watch that entire video.

It is my opinion there were certain aspects of the case that point to the quick conviction. Specifically, why it took the jury so little time to reject the insanity defense. The short answer is that they ‘didn’t buy it’. But why?

The jury was not sufficiently educated on what it is to be insane at the time of the crime. Although all the four experts agreed that Holmes had a mental illness they were divided on whether he was insane during the commission of the offense. The jury did not have time to digest the multitude of medical information being thrown at them. Think about it. It takes physicians and clinicians decades to fully grasp the intricacies of the mind – yet we expect our jurors to, within mere hours. 

Simply put, it was easier for the jurors not to accept that mental illness is like cancer, a disease, as the defense purported during its closing.

The jurors may have felt the state’s cross-examination devalued the defense experts plus, what I believe was most damaging, none of the experts were board certified in forensics, the convergence of science and crime. To be clear, for psychologists there is no board certification in forensics, just practical experience that allows them to put forth forensics as their expertise. However, for physicians a psychiatrist would do a one-year forensic fellowship followed by a forensic board examination to be certified. So the vehicle is there; it was a detriment to the defense that none of their experts were forensically certified. 

With respect to experts in general it is very difficult for attorneys to find ones that are great at testifying. And the ones who are get called “hired guns." The defense experts, especially the psychiatrist who was Holmes’ star witness, got crucified on the stand. The prosecution was relentless in attacking Dr. Raquel Gur’s credibility, performance and methodology. It was a protracted sideshow that deterred from her finding of insanity.

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A final note, the time limit on the closing arguments clearly favored the prosecution. Each side was given two hours for summations. The prosecution went first, used approximately an hour and a half and then saved 25 minutes for rebuttal. For a prosecutor it is frankly easier to explain in laundry list fashion why someone is sane. But for the defense it takes many hours to elucidate the jury on the nuances of mental illness and why – at one moment in time – a person may not be able to distinguish between right from wrong in the throes of a psychotic breakdown. When there are not time limits, as is often the case, I’ve witnessed attorneys take entire days summing up in an insanity case.

Perhaps Holmes was sane and maybe he was not. Still, jury deliberation requires just that. Discussion, debate, reflection – time. The process only works if you participate. I question to what extent this jury actually engaged in deliberations.

The jurors will return next week to move into the next phase of the process – sentencing. Jurors will have to decide if Holmes should get the death penalty. If they cannot unanimously agree then he will be sentenced to life without parole. At this stage Holmes mental illness could save him – it could mean the difference between just loss of liberty, rather than loss of life.