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Expert Witness Testifies in James Holmes Mass Shooting Trial

After several weeks of hearing from witnesses and police who explained how James Holmes carried out the 2012 attack on a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, jurors in the case were finally presented with testimony about his mental state when a prosecution expert witness took the stand to affirm that Holmes was legally sane at the time of the shooting.  Holmes is on trial for the murder of 12 people, and his mental state at the time of the attack will factor heavily into the jury’s verdict.

James Holmes on Trial for Opening Fire in Colorado Theater

In July of 2012, James Holmes entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a showing of the hit Batman movie, Dark Knight Rises, and opened fire on the unsuspecting crowd of roughly 400 people.  Holmes’ shooting resulted in the death of 12 people and injury of 70 others, and he was subsequently arrested and charged for his crimes.  After years of investigation, the Holmes mass-shooting trial began last month with the defendant facing a number of charges, including capital murder.  Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity while prosecutors contend that he was not insane and deserves to face the death penalty for his crime.

Prosecutors opened their case by presenting eyewitness testimony and gruesome crime scene photos to demonstrate not only the severity of Holmes’ attack, but also the precision with which he planned the shooting and his subsequent escape.  Prosecutors allege that the defendant was fully aware of what he was doing, knew that he was engaging in serious criminal conduct, and therefore he does not satisfy the legal requirements of an insanity defense.  After presenting evidence of the scene, prosecutors collaborated their position by calling a mental health expert witness who spoke with Holmes at length in the immediate aftermath of the defendant’s incarceration to testify that he was legally sane at the time of the shooting.

Prosecution Expert Witness Testifies to James Holmes’ Sanity

Because Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, the jury’s opinion on his mental state at the time of the shooting will be critical to the outcome.  To validate their argument that James Holmes was legally sane at the time of the shooting, prosecutors called Dr. William Reid as a psychiatry expert witness.  Dr. Reid spent over 22 hours with Holmes over the course of 9 interviews shortly after his arrest, and took the stand last week to tell jurors that the defendant did suffer from a mental illness, but was legally sane under the definition of sanity used by criminal law.

The legal standard for insanity does not turn on mental illness, but instead evaluates whether or not the defendant had the capacity to know right from wrong, and was aware of the legal consequences of his actions. Pointing to portions of his session with Holmes, Dr. Reid told jurors that he exhibited remorse for his actions, and made statements of regret when asked about the shooting.  Although the sessions came after the shooting, Holmes demonstrated knowledge that his actions were wrong, which calls to question his claims of insanity.

While on the stand, Dr. Reid told jurors of Holmes, “My opinion is that he did not — is that, whatever he suffered from — it did not prevent him from forming the intent and knowing what he was doing and the consequences of what he was doing.”  Dr. Reid’s expert testimony went on to inform jurors that the defendant satisfied the requirements of legal sanity because Holmes was able to understand the gravity of the shooting. Reid’s expert testimony served two critical roles: first, it informed jurors that the legal definition for insanity was not satisfied, and second, it broke the connection between mental illness and legal insanity that could have otherwise caused confusion for jurors.

Holmes’ Attorneys Question Prosecution Expert Witness

Although the prosecution’s use of Dr. Reid as an expert witness may prove to be effective, the content of the testimony also raises questions that could come up should Holmes be convicted and later file an appeal.  Defense attorney Daniel King protested Reid’s testimony largely because the prosecution asked their expert witness to make a conclusion about Holmes’ mental state specifically within the confines of the legal definition of insanity.  While this line of questioning was allowed by the judge, it toes the line of permissible use of expert witnesses because Dr. Reid arguably made a factual conclusion within the standards of the law which is a job typically left up to jurors.