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James Holmes: Insane, or calculated killer?

  • Dr. Brian Russell is a forensic psychologist
  • He analyzes the mind of the suspected Colorado shooter
  • He says some of Holmes' behavior is typical of mass murders, but other aspects of the case are bizarre
James Holmes: Insane, or calculated killer?
Dr. Brian Russell

Editor’s note: Dr. Brian Russell is a licensed forensic psychologist and attorney at law. He is also a correspondent for a forthcoming show on Investigation Discovery. He is on Twitter.




Such words naturally come to viewers’ minds when they watch coverage of a massacre like the one that unfolded in a Colorado movie theater last week. Such labels, however, don’t always apply, and even when they do apply, there’s always more to the story.

Typical of other mass shooters, the alleged perpetrator of the Colorado massacre, James Holmes, appears to be a solitary, disaffected young man. Evidence tells us that this particular individual also appears quite intelligent. In Holmes’ case, this is affirmed by the complexity of the premeditation that apparently preceded the bloodshed, which only made it more lethal.

It has been asserted that Holmes underwent a drastic and sudden change prior to the massacre, but such statements more likely prove how little people really knew him. Look for others to come forward gradually and acknowledge having observed indications that he could become radical, even volatile, when the world or life failed to meet his expectations.

What’s different about Holmes’ behavior from other mass murderers? The absence of any known prior relationship between him and any particular victim, or even between him and any particular group with which victims were affiliated. More commonly, the perpetrators of mass murder of this scale act out of some readily apparent vengeance.

Perhaps most tellingly atypical of mass shootings, however, are the measures Holmes allegedly took to ensure his survival during the rampage and his quick surrender to police thereafter. More commonly, such events have ended with the perpetrators dying in what they have likely conceptualized as a suicidal “blaze of glory.” 

Given that Holmes survived, an insanity defense -- which can be asserted even over his objection in Colorado -- is all but certain. Although such a defense may conform both to the conventional wisdom that any perpetrator of such depraved crimes “must” be “sick” and to the average viewer’s perception of bizarre courtroom behavior, as Holmes has already displayed, jurors are generally reluctant to vote “not guilty by reason of insanity” (NGRI), and for good reason.

In most American jurisdictions, including Colorado, in order to be found NGRI, the defendant must have been suffering from a mental disease or defect (generally excepting voluntary intoxication, and in Colorado, also excepting sociopathy), rendering him either unable to discern the nature of his actions (i.e. to be consciously aware of what he was doing) or unable to discern the wrongfulness of his actions (wrongfulness according to the law, that is, not according to his personal belief system). 

Given the extent to which he allegedly engaged in what I call the “3 P’s” (Planning, Preparation, and Practice) and in active concealment of his intentions, Holmes’ mind appears to have been functioning well enough to have been capable of discerning both the nature and wrongfulness of his actions and to have manifested “consciousness of guilt” (concealment indicates awareness that he would likely have been stopped had his intentions been discovered). Thus, while he may well be colloquially or even clinically “insane,” it appears unlikely that he is legally insane (people with psychosis, brain tumors, etc., can still be guilty of crimes).

All of this converges on the theory that Holmes may have an “agenda,” something to say, and may have perpetrated a massacre in order to gain the public forum of a trial in which to say it. And paradoxically, if that theory is correct, then he may actually sit face-to-face with a forensic psychologist one day soon, ignore the advice of his counsel, and insist that he is both competent to stand trial and legally sane. 

For more on Dr. Russell's thoughts, tune in to Jane Velez-Mitchell tonight at 7 p.m. ET and again at 8 p.m. ET for Nancy Grace.

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