What if alleged shooter James Holmes if found to be insane?
An insanity finding would mean that at the time of the crime, Homes did not appreciate that what he was doing was wrong. This may be hard to fathom for many people but for those suffering from breaks from reality, there is a big difference between the world in their mind and the world the rest of us perceive.
I recently asked a professor of mine from college who is a forensic psychologist and expert on evaluations for competency to stand trial what his take is on Mr. Holmes. My friend outlined several important points.
- is/was a very intelligent fellow in his mid-20s (typical age of onset for paranoid schiz) who flunked out of graduate programs,
- banned from a local shooting range for "bizarre" behavior,
- reportedly dyed his hair red and told people he was the Joker during the attack,
- arrested at the scene next to his car and apparently made no attempt to escape,
- And Holmes appeared in court today looking very dazed and disoriented, like somebody who is struggling to tell fantasy from reality.
My friend also stated "Unless he has taken a good class in abnormal or forensic psychology - from an experienced legal insanity evaluator - he seems to be showing all the reliable signs."
A proper clinical evaluation isn't done by reading press reports and observing a few seconds of someone's behavior as presented by the news; my friend knows this and is not offering a forensic evaluation, rather he offered some observations.
More Than A Defense Strategy
The first most important thing to note is that if Mr. Holmes is suffering from serious mental illness, the 20 July atrocity just got worse.
To think that someone might not have had control over his behavior due to the lack of mental health care is a tragedy in and of itself. This is compounded by the lives that were destroyed by the consequence of someone who did not receive mental health care.
Imagine for a moment that Mr. Holmes one day receives the treatment, which would probably include medication, he needs to see reality as it is. Can you imagine the horror that he would feel knowing that what he did destroyed the lives of so many?
A psychopath (a subset of people with ASPD) is someone without conscience. Someone suffering from serious mental illness, such as paranoid schizophrenia, is completely different; they have a break from reality. But when under a proper treatment, many if not most afflicted persons, understand compassion and right from wrong. There is no treatment for a psychopath.
A Pattern Emerges
After a shooting of this nature happens, most pundits immediately discuss gun control. But if we look at the history of these types of shootings, in these examples, gun control may not be what (or at least all) we should be talking about. The common denominator is mental illness.
For example, consider:
- Jared Lee Loughner - the shooter of US Rep Gabby Giffords was found incompetent to stand trial;
- Charles Whitman - a student at the University of Texas at Austin and a former Marine who killed 14 people and wounded 32 others during a shooting rampage in 1966 (Whitman suffered from a tumor the size of a walnut pressed up against his amygdala);
- or the Columbine shooters - both of whom suffered from being bullied at school, which may have resulted in PTSD manifesting in violence. Each also was reportedly to suffer from mental health issues;
- And now allegedly Mr. Holmes, who as my qualified expert friend notes, is exhibiting many 'reliable signs' of mental illness.
Most people with mental illness are not violent, but left untreated mental illness can be a risk factor for aberrant behavior which may include violence.
Speaking more broadly, some mental illness may be organic, whereas other mental illness may be acquired. And then clearly, there are those who have a predisposition to mental illness and succumb to a hostile environment.
Considering the number of shootings that transpire throughout the US on a daily and yearly basis, this recent act is a rare instance and not representative of the norm. Should public policy concerning guns be based on isolated events? Probably not. But we can still learn from these events and address any shortcomings laws may have. But the vast majority of gun crimes in the US are not of this nature.
From a public health and safety point of view, perhaps mental health and illness is the area of public policy that we too often overlook and maybe a national dialogue on mental health and mental illness is just as and even more important that a national dialogue on gun control.
Paul Heroux is an Attleboro resident and has a Bachelor's in Psychology and Neuroscience from the University of Southern California, a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Master's in Public Administration from the Harvard School of Government. Paul previously worked for a jail and prison. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.