‘He is sane’: James Holmes’ trial showed that the insanity plea is a mess


James Holmes was found guilty of first-degree murder Thursday, when a Colorado jury rejected his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The closing arguments suggested that the issue at stake in the case was whether the mass killer was sane or insane, as if the world were cleanly divided into these binaries. “He is sane… sane. Sane,” the prosecutor stated on Tuesday. But the trial was not simply a referendum on Holmes’ mental soundness. It was a fraught reckoning with an event most terrible, by a legal system bartering messily with the intersection of moral guilt, mental illness and legal culpability.

The jury’s verdict was not necessarily an agreement with District Attorney George Brauchler’s insistence that Holmes was “sane” when he opened fire on an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, killing 12 and injuring 70. It is unsurprising that Holmes has been found guilty, despite evidence of psychic perturbation. Jury verdicts do not offer comment on psychiatric evaluations. They determine guilt or innocence. The verdict says only that Holmes was not insane enough, or insane in such a way, as to preclude guilt. The state was burdened, and succeeded, in proving that the killer was not legally insane while committing the July 2012 massacre. But what it means to be legally sane is a controversial and variable standard. Holmes’ case highlights the lack of clarity and consistency in what “insanity” means, within and outside the legal system.

The very things that place Holmes and his ghastly crime in the pantheon of criminal insanity, as popularly understood, are the very same reasons his insanity defense failed. His planning, choice of time, location, weaponry and execution were meticulous. He made efforts, too, to give narrative form to his action. In a notebook sent to a psychiatrist before the attack, and later dissected at trial, he explained why he chose a cinema instead of an airport: to avoid assumptions of terrorism. “Terrorism isn’t the message,” he wrote. “The message is, there is no message.” His haunting self-styling as orange-haired Joker — “I am The Joker” he told police — situating his invocations of nihilistic chaos in the exact pop cultural space of his time. “It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message,” Heath Ledger’s Joker had cackled.

The Joker, especially Ledger’s Joker, inhabits an ur-lunacy precisely because his own internal logic is coherent, and his desire for violent rupture resonates with audiences so long as it remains fictional. But even in the film’s universe, there’s no doubt that he is culpable of villainy. Holmes, if he is to be taken as an ersatz Joker, is certainly insane, but as guilty of murder as we see The Joker to be. Holmes’ claim to insanity was not based on his actions lacking thought, or internal logic. The question was whether he was delusional enough to be incapable of differentiating between right and wrong.

We might imagine, for example, someone believing themselves to in fact be The Joker, beholden only to Gotham’s vigilante justice. And while two psychiatrists called by the defense said that Holmes did lack the mental capacity to tell right from wrong, two other court-appointed psychiatrists stated that, while Holmes had severe mental illness and schizophrenia, this did not amount to legal insanity when he carried out his rampage. It is perhaps darkly fitting that the jury ruled Holmes, like his purported fictional counterpart, to be mentally disturbed and still guilty of murder.

In Colorado, when an insanity plea is made, the defendant is presumed insane and the prosecution is tasked with proving otherwise. This differs from state to state, as do the rules governing an insanity defense. In some states, such a defense is not permitted at all — Kansas, Montana, Idaho and Utah would not have even given Holmes the option. What passes muster as sane, or more precisely sane enough, is a subject framed by the vagaries of legal precedent and its history in religious moralism. Advancements in psychiatry have been tacked on to an archaic set of rules, such that judicial determinations of sanity are a Frankenstein’s monster of simplistic morality and capacity for rule following, under a poorly stitched skin of scientific assessment. The primary rule guiding legal insanity determinations, the M’Naughten Rule, dates back to 1843, and has not substantially changed since.

The standard was first established in the British case of Daniel M’Naughten, who was acquitted on an insanity defense after attempted to kill the Prime Minister. It asserts that a defendant may be found not guilty by reason of insanity if “at the time of committing the act, he was laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.” In Colorado, and elsewhere, the rule also includes a provision known as the “Irresistible Impulse Test” — such that a defendant may know that an act is wrong at the time of committing it, but be unable, by virtue of mental illness, to stop. “Right and wrong” are, unsurprisingly in this judicial context, defined by what current law deems illegal and legal. Thus even adhering to a coherent and consistent subjective or alternative moral system could be incorporated into an insanity defense, if and only if the defendant showed an inability to understand right and wrong according to U.S. law.

An insanity acquittal is no open door to freedom. According to PBS Frontline, defendants who are successful in pleaded insanity spend as much if not more time confined in psychiatric institutions as defendants found guilty of equivalent crimes spend in prison. For Holmes, however, a successful insanity defense would have meant avoiding the death sentence, over which a jury will now deliberate. The idea, though, that an insanity defense is a loophole to get away with murder is ill-founded. John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981 in the belief that it was an act of love for actress Jodie Foster, was acquitted as insane, and remains held in a psychiatric institution. Public outcry around his acquittal, and the insanity defense in general, speaks to a desire to assign guilt in full to a violent actor.

Insanity pleas, though, are no mark of judicial leniency, nor do they index some enlightened understanding of mental illness by the legal system. Our legal and healthcare systems’ failings with regards to mental health are vast and unmitigated by the existence of insanity pleas. After all, the insanity defense originates in the most archaic understanding of madness as a punishment from god, that thus needs no further earthly intervention. The M’Naughten rule, too, is an outgrowth of archaic approaches to the insane as definitively incapable of understanding good and evil, transmuted to “right and wrong” when the window dressing of divinity was removed from state justice. It was not until around the late 18th Century that insanity became unmoored from the idea of moral incapacity, and the idea of mental illness as something to categorize, cure and manage rose to prevalence.

Modern psychiatry still barters in testing whether a person is capable of following societal codes — the DSM-5 is essentially a vast dictionary of behaviors included because they sit outside the boundaries of mental states currently deemed normal (or “healthy”). However problematic the categories of contemporary pathology may be, they at least highlight that there are many types of severe mental anguish which do not preclude an understanding and an ability to act within the bounds of “right and wrong.” The legal system shows its archaism when, in a case as high profile and sensitive as Holmes,’ a prosecutor feels the need to repeat thrice “he is sane” to denounce an insanity plea.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin