Another Voice Joins Mine In Criticizing Death Penalty In Movie House Mass Shooting


Yesterday afternoon The Washington Post published an Op Ed that I’d written that explained why I believe it is wrong to execute persons with mental illnesses even when they commit mass murders, as in the case of the Aurora movie theater shooter.  Those of you who are regulars readers of this blog already knew that was my position. By this morning, there were 200 comments and most of the commentators didn’t agree with me. Some of the ugliest statements were posted by writers who hid behind pseudonyms which always makes people feel safer than if they knew their neighbors might be reading their rants.

While my OP ED is only available on line, today’s print edition of the newspaper published a column by Richard Cohen about the death penalty and accused gunman James E. Holmes. He reaches the same conclusion that I did but for different reasons.

I’ve put my OP Ed below and here is a link to Cohen’s piece.

I will be in Boulder, Colorado this weekend at the invitation of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness. NAMI Boulder also is a sponsor. I ‘m giving a community wide lecture and then talking at two church services.  Colorado’s former first lady Jeannie Ritter, one of my favorite mental health advocates, will be introducing me. She is a real champion for us and knows first hand how difficult it can be to get someone you love help. She has a sister with a mental illness.

I will be curious to discover in Boulder how Colorado residents feel about their prosecutor’s decision to reject a life without parole sentence for Holmes in favor of seeking the death penalty.


Reprtinted from THE WASHINGTON POST   By Pete Earley


As the father of an adult with a severe mental illness, I am dismayed by a Colorado prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty in the Aurora movie theater attack.

Attorneys for the accused gunman, James Eagan Holmes, offered to have their client plead guilty in return for a life sentence without parole. That was not good enough for Arapahoe District Attorney George Brauchler.

After consulting with “800 victims and their families” on the July 2012 shootings that left 12 dead and dozens wounded, Brauchler declared that for Holmes, “justice is death.”Only the most egregious cases should merit the death penalty, and despite the monstrosity of these shootings, executing a defendant who was receiving psychiatric care and who appears to have a severe mental illness violates that high standard.Although a definitive diagnosis has yet to be made public, Holmes was seeing a doctor who specializes in treating schizophrenia. News reports say Holmes told a fellow college student before the murders that he had been diagnosed with dysphoric mania, a form of bipolar disorder. Common symptoms for both schizophrenia and dysphoric mania can include delusions and impaired reasoning. Both illnesses frequently surface in men during their early 20s. The causes of both are unknown but are not thought to be brought on by an individual’s own actions.My son got sick when he was 22. Chances are, you too know someone with a mental illness. Those of us with mentally ill family members have seen how schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can distort our loved ones’ thinking and sometimes cause them to break the law. Their actions are symptoms of their disorders.Mental illness does not excuse murder — a fact that Holmes’s attorneys readily acknowledged. But murders spawned in psychosis should be adjudicated differently from those for profit, jealousy or revenge.Our legal system does a poor job in dealing with mentally ill defendants. The standard legal test is whether the defendant knew at the time of the crime the difference between right and wrong and whether he understood the consequences of his actions. But that’s often a fool’s reasoning when applied to an ill person’s mind. I once asked a convicted murderer with schizophrenia if he understood that murder was wrong and that if he murdered someone, he would be punished. Of course he did, he quickly replied to both questions: “Everyone knows you shouldn’t kill people. I didn’t kill anyone. I killed an alien that had crawled into a baby’s body. I saw it go inside him.”Brauchler’s Pontius Pilate-style explanation does not absolve him of his prosecutorial responsibility to use discretion in the face of public cries for blood. Nor is Brauchler delivering “justice” to the victims and their families. Sending Holmes to prison for life without parole would have brought swift closure while ensuring public safety. Now victims face a protracted public trial, decades of legal appeals and appellate hearings in which they will be required to rehash their nightmares.Prosecutors agreed to spare the life of Tucson mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, after he pleaded guilty and accepted a sentence of life without parole for killing six and wounding 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.Arapahoe County prosecutor Brauchler should have followed suit. Instead, he chose a road that will add more pain to an already unbearable tragedy.
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.


  1. I fear very alone in my opinions often but I can always count on you Pete when I need a compatriot! Thank you for your steadfast goodwill towards all.

  2. Well said and true.

  3. Terri Wasilenko says

    Well here is one person who does agree with you!
    Thanks for sticking your neck out.

  4. Erich Lauffer says

    Here is hoping in 10 years (I would love it to be tomorrow) the subject of mental illness will be out in the sunlight and enough of our citizens will understand that getting a disease of the brain which then can severely affect behavior and thinking is not the fault or choice of the person who gets the disease. Similarly to other horrible genetically based diseases its a roll of the dice. Your statement “not thought to be brought on by an individuals own actions” I would think would be key in any defense argument. Thanks for your bravery. As MLK said “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”. Us fathers (and mothers) must walk arm in arm to shed light on this subject. Thanks to you!

  5. Pete,
    There is so much education to be done. Where does one begin?

  6. In R.Cohen’s piece, the phrase, the Taliban are among us, is cited. I’m not sure if that was the Arapahoe D.A.’s remark or Cohen’s in reference to the D.A., for lack of quotations.
    Anyway, I have noticed since 9-11, many references in the media to mental illness and terrorism, linking them together. When Bin Laden was exposed, many made remarks that he was mentally ill. At that time mentally ill people all across our country were visibly shaken by being lumped in w/ terrorists.
    12 years later, we are again, targeted as a group to be killers and potentially violent people, i.e. Newtown and the other slayings.
    I wrote an op-ed to my local paper back then,to educate the public that murderers like Bin Laden are not mentally ill.Terrorism is born out of dissillusionment, anger, and spurred on by a group, often religious, to right perceived injustices, often with a martyr mentality that replaces low self esteem. Powerless and repressed people make good terrorists when they incite themselves using religious idioms and social pressure, Similarly to the 800 familes crying out for vengeance to one mentally ill killer, terrorist groups target an enemy, also, for annihaltion.
    So, I imagine, in that sense, the Taliban IS alive and well, disguised as God-fearing American families seeking their form of warped justice!
    Of course, the real enemy that must be put to death, is the ignorance which is stigma. Ignorance spawns fear, fear creates stigma.
    Can we educate the 800, and countless others who react to life’s unpredictabilities and oft times unpleasant human behavior like Neanderthals wieding clubs?
    Can we get people back in touch with the human spirit, which governs all of us, including the mentally ill, retarded, senile, genius, and even the so-called healthy, and ignorant?
    A nation that puts to death its sick and ill, the very mentally ill that can be treated, but aren’t, is a very evil nation. If they execute their own citizens, barely 2 dozen years old, what else are they capable of? Only mentally defective and immoral people would lock up and kill the mentally ill, instead of using their brains to get them effective treatment.

  7. According to the media, both Jared and James were diagnosed with serious mental illness, and both had reported to mental health professionals that they were experincing violent urges. Apparently, they were responsible enoughj to recognize and ask for help the best way they knew how. As I write this, mentally ill people are revealing their anxietys, anger, despondency, etc, to doctors with 13 or more years of education, and social workers who hold doctorates. In their 10 minute to half hour sessions,they dare to hope that the MH team will partner with them in managing their illness.
    It is clear that the mental health system system failed to the point of criminal negligence for Jared and James. Those employees should be on trial. They are directly responsible for both mass murders, just as doctors who prescribe the wrong cocktails to celebrities who overdose, are also guilty.
    Shame on our entire justice system for allowing the slaughter of mentally ill people who, because of greed and stigma, do not have access to effective medical care. The science is there, the funding is not. (Maybe parties in the White House, and tax breaks for the rich are more important).
    When human life is no longer sacred, then people are less than animals.Now, we are murdering the sick among us, as vengeance becomes the god of choice.
    Justice is not a life , or death sentence for a person who was sick when
    he broke laws.
    Justice is treating that sick person so crimes he never would have committed in his right mind, never occur.
    Even a second grader could understand such basic logical truth,
    but we live in a country of millions that manage to elect ignoramuses and immoral people to high positions – otherwise ‘don’t kill sick people’
    would be a no-brainer.
    Welcome to the U.S.of Nazism – we kill the mentally ill, just like Hitler.
    God help America.

    • I agree.. It’s sad when our judicial system knows the person is mentally ill but cares more about what others will think,or the political aspect of it all then the truth & doing whats right & have commpassion toward the sick in mind…God help us to be more educated about those hurting mentally & need care just as those hurting in body.

  8. Yolanda67 says

    It’s unconscionable to sentence a young man to life in prison because his brain broke. We need to build facilities to care for these ill people, and we need to forgive even their most heinous trespasses. Maybe enclosed camps focused on gardening and the arts would be appropriate. But people this ill have no business being in prison.