Mass Murder and The Insanity Defence

In the James Holmes case if the insanity defense isn’t on trial, it ought to be on trial. Now every lone gunman with multiple notches on his gun handle has a better and better chance of keeping his skin post massacre.

A recent story in The Globe and Mail, a Canadian news magazine, Angry or insane? Mental state of Colorado shooting suspect faces court scrutiny, explains the matter.

Prosecutors wanting to prove that a gunman methodically carried out last month’s Colorado theatre shooting that left 12 people dead and wounded 58 have a difficult task: If James Holmes pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, they must prove he is sane.

About 10 states in the Union require the state to prove “sanity”. This presumption of “insanity”, in my book, is not quite the same thing as a presumption of innocence.

“It’s totally subjective,” said Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor now in private trial attorney in Los Angeles. It’s not like proving somebody pulled the trigger. That’s objective.“

Totally subjective indeed! On the one hand you have the legal definition of “insanity” as “a danger to oneself or others”, on the other hand you have a definition of the law that says anybody and everybody has the capacity to commit a violent crime. By legal definition then 100 % of the population is “insane”, and could be locked up in a psychiatric institution given the proper authorization to do so.

I know how lawyers and politicians work, and this is where they start pulling out qualifying terms like “reasonable”. Yes, and this is where no amount of reason is going to mend unreasonable law.

Qualifying is, for example, the term “mental illness” as opposed to “insanity”.

If Mr. Holmes is found sane and goes to trial and is convicted, his attorneys can try to stave off a possible death penalty by arguing he is mentally ill. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty.

Should Mr. Holmes be found to be suffering from Post Massacre Stress Syndrome his chances of evading the grim reaper are pretty good for the time being. Note that we are not here questioning the “sanity” of laws that allow the state, and some people would call it an “insane” state, to put people to death.

All of this attention on the gunman draws attention away from his victims. The living ones will get their day in court, and the dead ones will require their relatives to speak for them. The grief won’t rest so easily. Healing alone won’t do it. The nation must do something to assuage its own guilt in tending to these 71 victims, and by making the number 71, I’m including Mr. Holmes among his victims. The count doesn’t stop there either, each of the victims has relatives and loved ones who will suffer in turn.

There will also be a copycat killer thinking that targeting this school, or that theater, or the government building over there will catapult him or her into the national limelight. I’m just wondering, where are the people to tell them that they have better things to be doing with their time and energy? There used to be better things to do anyway. I’m wondering, where are those better things going for all of us? Without those better things around it sure doesn’t get any harder for a person to snap.