James Holmes death penalty trial is a colossal waste of time and money

James Eagan Holmes was arrested on July 20, 2012 shortly after killing 12 and wounding 70 people at the midnight premier of a new Batman film in the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, CO. He was eventually charged with 152 crimes, including 12 counts of premeditated murder, 12 counts of depraved heart murder (charged in the alternative) and 70 counts of attempted murder. The prosecution is seeking the death penalty even though there is no question that Holmes was mentally ill but legally sane at the time of the shootings — one psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from schizotypal disorder while a second psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from shizoaffective disorder — and he offered to plead guilty to a life-without-parole sentence. After the prosecution rejected the defense offer, Holmes changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial began with jury selection on January 20, 2015. Both sides rested yesterday. Closing arguments for the guilt phase are scheduled to start on Tuesday.

We who have experience representing clients in death penalty cases* refer to the guilt phase in a slam dunk case like this as a slow-motion guilty plea. That is, when we lack a defense, instead of pleading guilty, we use the guilt phase to introduce evidence that mitigates the seriousness of the offense. Holmes’s insanity defense is doomed because he admitted to police that he knew killing was wrong. But there is no dispute that he was mentally ill. While not a defense, mental illness is a powerful mitigating factor and, as I’ve said previously, I think the jury will likely vote for a life-without-parole sentence after the penalty phase for the simple reason that killing somebody who was mentally ill through no fault of their own is morally and ethically repugnant to most people.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again, this trial has been a colossal waste of taxpayer time and money.

*I was a death penalty lawyer until I retired in 2005.

Judge dismisses fifth juror in the Aurora theater shooting case

Judge Carlos Samour dismissed a fifth juror today in the James Holmes death penalty trial in Colorado. Holmes is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 70 at the premier showing of a new Batman film at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Before I discuss the situation with the jurors, I am going to provide some context regarding what the jury will have to decide.

Hplmes entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, which admits that he was the gunman. The trial is in the guilt/innocence phase now and the only significant issues for the jury to decide in this phase is whether he could distinguish right from wrong and knew that shooting those people was against the law.If the answer to those questions is yes, then the jury will reject the insanity defense and convict him of the charges against him.

Seems pretty clear to me that he was psychotic at the time of the shooting, but that’s not sufficient to satisfy the legal test for insanity. Therefore, that most likely means that the jury will convict him and the trial will proceed to a penalty phase. After both parties rest at the end of the penalty phase, the jury will then have to decide whether to sentence him to death or life without possibility of parole.

Now let’s take a look at what is going on with this jury. The fifth juror who was dismissed today volunteered that she recognized a witness in the case. She revealed that she know the witness because she works at a school where the witness’s son is a student. NBC News is reporting that the juror said she remembered that the witness’s child had been in therapy because of the shooting rampage.

Our judicial system recognizes that jurors who know witnesses and something relevant about their circumstances probably will be either biased or prejudiced against a party to the lawsuit and for that reason the should be dismissed. The juror’s knowledge of the witness, who is the mother of a child who was psychologically traumatized by the shooting, raises a legitimate concern that the juror’s personal knowledge of that situation may prejudice her against the defendant. Therefore, I agree with the judge’s decision to dismiss the juror.

This woman was the fifth juror dismissed by the judge during the trial. The first three were because they violated the prohibition against discussing the case during the trial. The fourth juror was dismissed because her brother-in-law was shot during am armed robbery. I agree with the court’s decision to dismiss her because that incident probably impacted her ability to fairly and impartially decide the case.

What impact will the dismissal of five jurors have on the case? It would be a problem if less than 12 jurors were left to decide the case. Fortunately, the trial started with 24 jurors (12 jurors and 12 alternates. Now, they are down to 7 alternates, so they have plenty to spare.

Incidentally, I disagree with the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty in this case. Mental illness is a significant mitigating circumstance and I believe it’s unlikely that the jury will sentence him to death for the simple reason that he did not choose to be mentally ill. The accountability argument loses a lot of steam when the defendant is mentally ill. The decision to seek the death penalty despite strong mitigating evidence was irresponsible.