Psychiatrist: No doubt Colorado shooter psychotic
Centennial, Colo. — Attorneys for Colorado theater shooter James Holmes began presenting their case Thursday by calling a psychiatrist who said he had no doubt Holmes was psychotic in the aftermath of killing 12 people at a packed movie premiere.
Dr. Jonathan Woodcock interviewed Holmes in jail for two hours on July 24, 2012, four days after he opened fire on the theater. The doctor said he found the gunman suffering from severe mental illness that made him “tremendously emotionally flat.”
Halfway through the exam, Holmes looked annoyed and said he was bored, Woodcock testified.
“I found that absolutely extraordinary that anybody in such a crime could feel bored,” Woodcock said. “That was really an extraordinary manifestation of his mental illness.”
The jail visit with Holmes was not intended for Woodcock to form an opinion on Holmes’ sanity but rather to see if Holmes was competent to stand trial.
Woodcock was among the first witnesses called by the defense in an effort to show Holmes was legally insane at the time of the shooting, which also wounded 70 people.
Defense attorneys planned to offer a less emotional and more clinical assessment of Holmes after two months of often-gruesome testimony from prosecution witnesses, including many visibly wounded victims.
Without the scores of victims on their side, Holmes’ lawyers plan to present evidence in less than a quarter of the time taken by prosecutors. Their goal is not only to keep Holmes out of prison but also to keep him alive.
On the first day of the defense case, Holmes appeared clean-shaven in the courtroom, a change from the bushy beard he wore during the prosecution’s case.
After the shooting, Holmes was clearly distressed by the worsening symptoms of his disorder, which brought anxiety and pushed him to drop out of his stressful neuroscience program, Woodcock said.
Holmes told the doctor he began experiencing problems as early as middle school. He started thinking of killing other people as a way to ease the discomfort of his own suicidal thoughts, Woodcock testified.
Woodcock’s findings were in contrast to two other, court-appointed psychiatrists who examined Holmes in the months and years after the shooting and found him mentally ill but capable of knowing right from wrong at the time — Colorado’s definition of legal sanity. Holmes’ attorneys have argued that his mental decline was far greater than the state doctors knew, in part because those doctors analyzed him much later after the attack.
Woodcock sought to counter the prosecution’s argument that Holmes knew what he planned to do was wrong and therefore could have stopped it. Woodcock testified that psychotic people can both know their impulses are wrong and be powerless not to act on them.
“There can be an awareness that they don’t want to do this, but they’re still compelled to do it,” he argued.
Woodcock also testified that Holmes believed that if he told people about his plans to kill strangers, he would be required to carry out the action. He said Holmes has a “twisted orientation” and that there is no point in trying to understand why psychotic people would hide behavior they want others to stop them from carrying out.
“They’re by essence crazy. They’re illogical,” Woodcock said.
If jurors agree, Holmes would be committed to a state mental hospital indefinitely.
The insanity defense is successful in only about 25 percent of felony trials in which it is raised nationally, and the odds are worse in a high-profile homicide.
In Colorado, prosecutors have the burden of proof in insanity cases. Most states and the federal system place that burden on defendants.
The defense case also is critical because jurors can use information they hear in the verdict phase if the trial advances to a sentencing phase. Studies show that jurors often enter a penalty phase with their minds made up about an appropriate sentence, even though they are instructed not to do so.
“The defense is going to say, ‘There’s no question he was able to inflict a ton of carnage here, but do we give society’s harshest sentence to someone who is severely mentally ill?’” said George H. Kendall, who has handled other high-profile death-penalty cases.