In movies and TV, declaring a defendant “insane” usually gets them off with short time and a comfy stay at a psychiatric hospital. In real life? Not so easy. Except in Colorado, where the burden of sanity lies with prosecutors. So, instead of the James Holmes defense team needing to prove insanity, all they have to do is declare “guilty by reason of insanity” and sit back while the prosecution tries to prove them wrong.
Doesn’t exactly seem fair, does it? Colorado is actually one of several states outside of federal judicial jurisdiction that requires the prosecution to prove that an “insane” defendant is actually in full control of their mental faculties. So, all James Holmes needs to do is keep acting like he’s on Ambien in court, and it’s the prosecution’s battle. Though they’re building a case that Holmes had actually been planning the Aurora massacre for some time and that he was slowly unraveling over the course of several months, they might accidentally end up doing the defense’s job for them.
“It’s burden of proof on steroids,” one former federal prosecutor told the AP. “It’s totally subjective. It’s not like proving somebody pulled the trigger. That’s objective.”
Just in case we’re foggy on the insanity plea, an insanity defense basically says that the defendant “should be absolved of the crime because he couldn’t tell right from wrong at the time,” according to Newser. A court-ordered psychological evaluation of the defendant is usually completed by state psychiatrists, but the defense and prosecution can bring in their own experts for additional evaluations.
A successful insanity defense hinges on a state doctor’s diagnosis (which is incredibly rare), so the defense may never get the chance to say that James Holmes is insane. Furthermore, the defense can still steer Holmes away from harsh punishments like the death penalty by arguing that their client is mentally ill, even if he is found sane and convicted.
James Holmes is accused of methodically planning a shooting at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 people dead and 59 others wounded.