Should Prosecutors Seek the Death Penalty in the Batman Movie Massacre Case

Prosecutors have not decided whether they will seek the death penalty in the horrific, so-called Batman “movie massacre” shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  James Eagan Holmes is charged with murdering twelve movie-goers and injuring 58 others in what ranks as the highest number of casualties in an American mass shooting.

Sunday’s edition of The Denver Post printed articles by two lawyers, one arguing in favor and the other against a death sentence. A recent CBS News report revealed that Holmes had met with at least three mental health professionals at the University of Colorado prior to the shootings.  His name also was brought to the attention of the school’s Behavior Evaluation and Threat Assessment team, although it’s not clear what school officials did or didn’t do when they learned that Holmes was troubled. Some reports have suggested he has schizophrenia.

I don’t believe that persons whose crimes were prompted by a severe mental disorder such as schizophrenia should be executed. What follows is my response to the reasons that have been given by those who think a death sentence is justified.

1.  MENTAL ILLNESSES ARE JUST AN EXCUSE. There are still prosecutors who don’t believe mental illnesses are real or really should matter when it comes to administering justice. “Just because you have a mental disorder, doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for your actions,” a prosecutor told me. Perhaps, but that raises a question: if a 60 year old man suffered a stroke and blacked out while driving his car and ran through an intersection killing two pedestrians, would the state execute him? What Holmes did is reprehensible, but if he was psychotic should he be held accountable in the same manner as someone whose thinking wasn’t impaired by a brain disorder?  One reason why prosecutors and jurors are suspect of an insanity defense is because defense attorneys often use it inappropriately because they don’t have any other way to explain their client’s actions. They can do this because there are plenty of psychiatrists and mental health professionals who are willing to be mouthpieces for hire. That’s why I believe the court should be in charge of hiring psychiatrists to evaluate defendants, not the two sides who both have a stake in the diagnosis. Several European countries handle insanity cases that way which makes more sense to me than relying on bought-for testimony.

2. THE PUBLIC MUST BE PROTECTED  I agree, but I think this often is used for a dodge for what really is going on – prosecutors wanting to look tough and appease voters.  The movie Fatal Attraction originally ended with Alex Forrest, a revenge driven, jilted lover being arrested after she terrorized her married boyfriend and boiled the family bunny in a pot on the stove. But during test screenings, audiences made it clear that they wanted a much harsher punishment. The movie’s ending was changed and Forrest was fatally shot.  Admittedly, that’s a Hollywood ending.  Just the same, it’s telling. Mental illnesses terrify and confuse us, and when persons with mental illnesses are responsible for unspeakable carnage, we want them removed from society — permanently. Killing a “psycho-siren” – as one film critic called Forrest – may have made the test audience feel better leaving the theater, but is putting someone to death who has a brain disorder just and fair?

3. IF WE DON’T KILL THEM, THEY WILL GET OUT AGAIN AND HURT SOMEONE.  If someone actually is found insane but not guilty, what happens to them? Most are locked in “forensic” cellblocks at state prisons where they get little if any meaningful psychiatric treatment. If someone does get help and is ready for discharge, judges generally balk. That’s why prisoners with mental disorders generally spent three times longer in jail than anyone else. It makes you wonder if we really believe that someone who is sick can recovery and, if so, do they deserve another chance.

In the case of Jared Lee Loughner, prosecutors were able to get a favorable plea bargain by threatening a death sentence.  Of course, Loughner is the gunman who murdered six, including a child, and wounded thirteen, including  Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, outside a Tuscon, Arizona supermarket on January 8, 2011.  In return for pleading guilty, the death sentence was dropped and Loughner agreed to a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the opportunity for parole.

Dr. Christina Pietz, who treated Loughner in prison, told the judge that Loughner had displayed depressive symptoms in 2006 and was formally diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2011. Dr. Pietz stated that she believed that, after having been forcibly medicated for more than a year in prison, Loughner had expressed remorse and was a changed individual, and that he was competent to stand trial and agree to a plea.

Put simply, Loughner finally got the treatment that he needed to regain clear thought, which made it okay to sentence him to prison for the rest of his life for horrible crimes that he committed while he was delusional and sick.

A reporter from USA TODAY interviewed the survivors of the Tucson shootings and I want to share one of the victims’ statements with you.

Randy Gardner who was shot in the foot outside the Safeway, said he was grateful that Justice Department kept everyone up to date on Loughner’s court case. He said each was asked their opinions when it came to an outcome, and whether life in prison would be acceptable.

“We’re all appreciative of the deal that was struck,” Gardner said. “They asked us how we felt about the death penalty. They talked to us individually. But as a group we were pretty much on the same page. We weren’t out for vengeance.”

Gardner also wondered what would have happened had Loughner gotten the help that court testimony showed he needed.

Dr. Christina Pietz, Loughner’s forensic psychologist, painted a picture of a troubled man, one who isolated himself from friends and family.

Gardner, a former mental-health therapist, said he’d encountered troubled men who had been worse off than Loughner.

“It’s truly sad he didn’t receive attention prior to this,” said Gardner, a former mental health therapist. “My thinking is we really have got to be our brother’s keeper here and reach out when we see people struggling and get people help.”

 

If James Holmes proves to be as sick at Loughner, then there is a chance that he will end up with the same life without any chance of parole sentence.

Shame on all of us if we don’t learn anything from these tragedies. Shame on us if we don’t listen to what Randy Gardner said.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • Terri Wasilenko

    I think we can be our ‘brother’s keeper’ but to do this people need to know what they can actually do to help an individual exhibiting severe emotional stress. People need to be educated about the causes, symptoms and treatments for mental illnesses as well as mental hygiene law in order to make a difference in a person’s life. Education is the crux of the problem!

    Terri Wasilenko
    NAMI Cayuga County

    P.S. Your article makes an excellent point!

  • BART

    Taking this man’s life is NOT the answer although it might make the public feel safer. What the public needs to realize is that there are MANY, MANY MORE individuals who are sicker than this young man. We need to confront the problem head on…(no pun intended) and recognize signs that someone is seriously troubled. We should provide them the help that they deserve as HUMAN BEINGS, and not treat them as if they were MONSTERS! I certainly hate what this man did and his actions were atrocious! He is a person in need of medical attention so that recovery might become a possibility! This is another example of someone slipping through the ever widening cracks of a very BROKEN AND FLAWED health care system!! We need to be our “brother’s keeper” NOT his JUDGE, JURY AND EXECUTIONER!

  • Techn9nekate

    should we give our government the death penalty?