What if the 'Batman Shooter' is Insane?

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.

What If...?

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.

Holmes was:

  • 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.

    This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

    Paul Heroux July 30, 2012 at 12:25 AM
    PS: Buck, I'd like to add that this article is more conservative leaning than liberal. Think about it... The message of this article is one where I'm talking about having compassion for people with mental illness (and I'm not saying that Holmes has that; I'm just raising it might be possibility). Compassion isn't liberal or conservative. It is humane. And I'm also diverting the discussion AWAY from gun control to mental health awareness. What I've notice is that someone who uses a name whereby if we switch the B and F first letters of the first and last name, we get someone with obvious right leanings. Good night my friend, maybe someday we'll meet and you'll share with me your real name so I can have a real person beside your opinions... putting my real name besides my opinions is, after all, how I operate. :)
    deb of see-attleboro July 30, 2012 at 06:51 PM
    Thank you. I am sure such findings are way over my head. If psychopaths are truly born without conscience, I suppose it would be beneficial to identify such individuals early. Or maybe not. As we have seen with this case, if a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of knowledge can be catastrophic. Especially in this age of information. I have many thoughts on the subject of this massacre. Most involve social/societal ills, idolatry, moral bankruptcy etc. But I appreciate your perspective.
    Paul Heroux July 30, 2012 at 07:44 PM
    Hi, Deb, This is where it gets tricky and I made reference to research done by Adrain Raine in terms of being 'born bad.' I think an excellent book on the subject is "Without Conscience" by Robert Hare. Also, the Psychopathology of Crime by Adrain Raine. I've read them both; both very informative. What happened in Colorado was the worst kind of awful. And I don't ever want to see Holmes walk the streets again, and he won't. The point of my article was to ask the question about Holmes mental status. I'm not making any conclusions; I'm not qualified to do that. If he is suffering from a mental illness that compelled him to act as he did, then we have a very rare situation; most criminals are not 'compelled' to act with violence, even if they have a lot of risk factors. But more broadly speaking, when we (society) ignore mental illness, it is a risk factor for crime, and sometimes very violent crime.
    deb of see-attleboro July 31, 2012 at 03:40 PM
    I just recently heard a pastor explain the conscience in this way. He said that the conscience is a gift from God. So if it is true that someone can be born without one, I wonder why God would withhold such a vital attribute from humanity. There must surely be a purpose. This pastor also explained how the conscience is to work in the life of a believer. I hope I get this right.. He said that the conscience is what keeps a person's imagination in check. Without a well-developed and healthy conscience, the imagination can lead us to some pretty dark places and convince us to do some pretty unhealthy things. I suppose this is true for everyone, not just believers. It is so hard to make sense out of any of these atrocities. But I am very troubled when I hear a conservative personality say things like "there is nothing we can do about it, so just leave my guns alone". And I heard more than one say just that. I don't want to take their guns away. However, I would like to believe there IS something we can do to prevent future senseless massacres. Could happen through science or through faith. Or maybe a combination of these two disciplines. But something needs to happen.
    Addled August 01, 2012 at 03:50 PM
    Obviously the "pastor" doesn't know the Bible or what he's talking about and has come to his own conclusions.


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