In criminal trials, the insanity defense is the claim that the defendant is not responsible for his or her actions during a mental health episode (psychiatric illness or mental handicap).
The defense for mass murderer James Holmes claims the defendant was not guilty by reason of insanity in the Colorado movie theater massacre. Twelve people were killed, and 70 people injured in the 2013 shooting that stunned a nation. If the jury convicts Holmes, it would then also have to decide whether he should be executed or be sentenced to life without parole.
There are four different legal defenses for insanity. Cornell University Law School defines them quite nicely here. Depending on which defense is used the punishment could vary.
The accurate prediction of violence is a difficult area in psychiatry, so being able to predict that Holmes would do something like this is very difficult. What can we learn from Holmes? In many of these shootings, often the perpetrators are shot, or they kill themselves; not leaving the opportunity to learn what triggered them to be so violent. In this instance, crazy as it may be, we have the opportunity to observe, listen and learn from Holmes. We can learn what he was thinking and how he acted and develop possible preventive measures.
In the meantime, as this trial unfolds I want to remind parents that this can bring up a lot of scary feelings for children all again. Children will no doubt be privy to hearing the details of this shooting all again as it is discussed in the news; creating discussions that adults will have that children may overhear. I recommend that first you make sure your response is developmentally appropriate. How you discuss the trial and the shooting with a teenager is very different from how you would discuss it with a younger child. Based on their age limit the exposure to the news. Young children do not need to see it at all. Teenagers may ask questions and it may bring up some of the fears that the shooting initially triggered in 2012. Talk with your teenager about how rare it is for this to happen and emphasize safety. With young children don’t overwhelm them with details. Reassure them that they are safe. Lastly, don’t create anxiety. If you become anxious, then your children will, too.
Disclaimer This blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended as medical or psychiatric advice for individual conditions or treatment and does not substitute for a medical or psychiatric examination. A psychiatrist must make a determination about any treatment or prescription. Dr. Paul does not assume any responsibility or risk for the use of any information contained within this blog.