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James Holmes — Schizophrenia Could Be A Game Changer

Prior to yesterday’s revelation that Holmes was in treatment with a psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia, the common wisdom on the case was that Holmes would have to plead not guilty by reason of insanity and that the plea would have little chance of success.

That was because under Colorado law a person is legally insane if  the person suffers from a mental disease or defect that makes the person incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. The legal and mental health experts opined that it would be difficult first to prove that Holmes suffered from a mental disease and second that the disease prevented him from knowing the difference between right and wrong. How could he not know that picking up a gun and shooting people in a theater was wrong? One expert wondered.

Well, we have the answer now. If Holmes had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, the insanity path is a lot less difficult. Schizophrenia is a form of psychosis in which, as one person put it, the person interprets reality different than we do. More succinctly, a person suffering from schizophrenia is subject to hallucinations and delusions. He might hear voices in his head telling him what to do. He has trouble telling what is real and what is not real. The reality in his head is not the same as the reality outside his head. If his reality did not contain a definition of right or wrong, or if he was in the grip of a hallucination so powerful and complete that there simply were no moral distinctions, then he would seem to be legally insane under our definition. Suppose, for example that in his hallucination he was commanded by voices to kill the people in the theater, and suppose that these voices were the source of what was right, would he be legally insane and therefor not responsible?

The fact that he planned the killing meticulously for four months beforehand does not necessarily diminish this defense. Schizophrenia is not a mental disease that pops up in a flash; it is a permanent condition. All of this planning activity could have been undertaken in the same delusional state.

And don’t forget that under Colorado law the defendant is not required to prove he is insane. After the defense is raised, the state must then prove he was in fact sane at the time the crime was committed. With a diagnosis of schizophrenia on the table, this could be an extremely difficult task. 

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