James Holmes in court

In the Case of James Holmes: Life in Prison on Charges of Insanity

The day is July 20, 2012. You buy the ticket for your favorite superhero, Batman’s new movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Your friends and you walk into the theater, ready to watch the new movie. You sit down, and soon the movie begins. Just as the show starts, a man dressed all in black with bright orange hair enters through the exit door, carrying an AR-15, and without saying a word, starts firing calmly into the crowd. James Holmes has decided to carry out his so-called mission.

He calmly reloads as you hear people screaming for help. You see the foam of the seats flying up, blood dripping, people screaming as you head for the door that’s crowded with people and hard for anyone to get out of. You turn and watch people fall to their death with blood covering the carpets where their now dead bodies lie. Parents carry their children, making sure at least their young ones are safe. Young kids try to help elderly people escape as they fall to their knees.

How would you feel about this man? What would be your primary reaction? What kind of sentence do you think such a man should deserve? Was his plea for insanity reasonable?

Who is James Holmes?

Image of James Holmes in college and afer his crimes
Image Source: nytimes.com

James Holmes was an intelligent child who came to study at the University of Colorado-Denver for his master’s in Neuropsychology. He told an interviewer that he had an “obsession to kill since I was a kid [and] with age became more and more realistic”, exposing that Holmes had moments in high school when his psychopathic tendencies started to appear and in order to fix himself he “attempted to diagnose his own mental health issues, referencing “catatonia,” “excessive fatigue” and “isolationism.”(Bever). He had reached a point where he “pulled out his hair… until he created a bald spot near the back of his head” (Bever), showing his early behaviors of becoming a psychopath. James Holmes had a mother and father who both cared for him deeply, but many people argue that he showed the characteristics of a child who was not loved.

While growing up, James Holmes would keep a diary where he would have written his fantasies days before the shooting. Holmes also wrote how he “debates how he wants to kill people, sketches out theaters to attack, and estimates how long it would take the police to respond to reports of gunfire from inside the theater” (Healy).

As the days came closer to the shooting, he became more anxious about the coming day. He tells the police psychiatrist that he thought the F.B.I was following him as he drove to the theater. This proves that Holmes had premeditated his plans as he was overly paranoid about the whole event. It was also said that he allegedly photographed his ballistic gear arrayed on his bed.

On the day of the shooting

After he got to the theater, he called a mental health hotline to see if he should turn back. He hung up without speaking to anyone when he did not hear a person at the other end. Soon after he walked into the theater on said night, a witness called the police. He mentioned a man in a black bandana, walking toward the emergency exit and propping it open with his foot. A few minutes later, Holmes re-enters, this time with guns and tear gas, shooting at the audience ready to watch Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.

A few minutes later, the police arrive and arrest Holmes. On the way to the patrol car, Holmes confesses to one more crime. He reveals to the police that his nearby apartment is full of explosives to kill anyone who opens his front door. After that, he remained silent for a long time. As Holmes was behind bars, the police force got to his house to defuse the bomb. In an interview, Holmes states that he felt “calm and collected” [during the shooting]. Afterward, he mentions how he was “successful in the mission”, going on to add that the shootings “increased my self-worth” (Healy).

Cinematic Hero or just Insanity?

His words sounded as if he was committing murder for the good of all. He was on a mission, and this mission did not regard humans as valuable. He could not distinguish whether his actions were right or wrong, as most heroes on screen also do the same.

In other words, a protagonist’s violence is seen as justice and heroism because they are the ‘good guy’ combatting the ‘bad guy’ (who is everything viewers fear). For spectators, violence perpetrated by the protagonist instils a sense of admiration and delight. (Blunden)

Maybe he thought he was the protagonist of his own movie? He could have seen himself as a good guy who was fighting for a cause that others could not see. We can never know any of that for sure though, as he refuses to speak much about the whole case. Either way, his actions caught the attention of people all over America and the globe.

Results of the case

On July 20, 2012, James Holmes entered the Century Theater in Aurora, Colorado. He shot 12 people to death while injuring 70 others. The police were quick to come to the scene and arrest him. He pleaded insanity, and two years later Holmes’ sentences were revealed to the public. He was charged with one life term for each person he killed. Plus 3,318 years for the attempted murders of those he wounded and for rigging his apartment with explosives (O’Neil).

While most people believe that this was a fair sentence for a mass murderer such as him, others disagree. Many people, such as the family of Veronica Moser-Sullivan, a six-year-old child who died in this shooting, agree that putting Holmes on death row would have been the better choice. As evidence from his diary shows, he was not insane at the time of his crime (Bever). Citizens of Aurora believe the punishment he received is not enough, and he should be put on death row.

For people like James Holmes, the death penalty can be a blessing in disguise. The definition of a psychopath is a person who “appeared outwardly normal,” They [doctors] termed it “moral depravity” or “moral insanity” (Hirstein). It explains why no one, not even his family, was able to see Holmes’ psychopathic mind. Only Holmes understood the crazy side of him and, with no one to talk to, it drove him insane as he would go so far as to rip out his own hair.

Worldwide panic

Aurora Century theater where the shooting took place in Coorado
Image Source: wikipedia.com

James Holmes’ actions on that night caused a stir throughout the world. His parents, who know of his condition, came over to Colorado. While the family members of the victims continue to mourn for the ones lost. Soon after, the trial began on July 23, 2012.

The trial starts with heavy hearts as witnesses and family and friends step up to talk about the loved ones they have lost and all the horror and trauma left behind by this one man’s choice. One victim, Mr. Medley, tried to speak as the court asked him “Can you spell your name? He spelled out the letters. And had he gone to the theater that night? Y-E-S. Prosecutors asked him no other questions” (Healy, Victims Detail). The incident left him with “severe brain damage” and he had to undergo “multiple brain operations. He attended the hearings in a wheelchair, flanked by his wife and family members” (Healy). Mr. Melody’s was one of the many lives that were changed that night.

When people worldwide heard of incidents such as these, they all wanted Holmes’ sentence to be released as soon as possible, but more issues arose. Holmes pleaded insanity at the time of his crime, including his lawyers, causing the trial to take longer than necessary. Holmes explained to the psychiatrist in jail “how he had slipped through the emergency exit door of a packed movie theater and opened fire on the crowd” (Healy) in his unemotional tone. After that, his personal psychiatrist was interviewed and asked questions such as “If the defendant had told you about buying weapons and making plans, would you have acted differently,” to which she responded, “yes, it would have shown me he had a plan and intent, not just homicidal thought” (O’Neil).

The insanity case caused the whole ordeal to take more time

The trial was long and confusing for everyone, as there was the constant thought of whether Holmes was insane or not. During the trial, the judges, jurors, victims, and anyone watching the trial was questioning whether he was truly insane or just acting. The family of the victims and many of the onlookers pleaded with the courts saying that he was sane. They said he was just acting in order to stay a free man for even a bit longer (Berman).

Even the police and court were confused, as mass shooters such as James Holmes are rarely caught “because, after a mass or active shooting, the people opening fire are usually killed by the police or by their own hands. They rarely go on to stand trial” (Berman). Gomez-Loevano said that “for the 176 incidents that involved mass killings with firearms, 46% of the killers committed suicide”, so for the police to arrest a mass shooter was something that has never been done before.

The insanity case caused the whole ordeal to take more time and as years passed, so did his sentence. As more evidence came up, James Holmes’ fate was sealed as “Nine jurors had favored death and two were unsure, but one wanted a life sentence” (Healy), which ended with the ultimate decision to give Holmes the life sentence.

James Holmes’ Mental Illness

Decorative image showing the different symptoms of Schizophrenia
Image Source: verywellming.com

Out of the very little information Holmes gave, he also mentioned his emotions during the time of the crime. This forces the victim and the jurors to think about his mental state in a deeper sense. Holmes explained that during the moment of the crime he “was carrying out what he called a ‘mission,” and during the moment of the crime, he said he felt “calm and collected” (Healy). Even after his arrest, he was forced to talk with two different psychiatrists; one claimed, “he believes Mr. Holmes was legally sane, and prosecutors have said that a second psychiatrist who evaluated him reached the same conclusion” (Healy). Holmes also mentions many of his emotions before and after the crime. He made claims that he was mentally insane. With facts like these, knowing his mental state became harder for the jurors, but at last, they came up with a vote.

Schizophrenia Diagnosis

During his days in college, Holmes visited a psychiatrist who was a “specialist in schizophrenia” (Metzl). He went to visit her often and told her about many things. When the police questioned the psychiatrist, she mentioned that Holmes “never spoke of taking his own life during the sessions with her, yet he believed that murder was ‘a solution to a biological problem… you can’t kill everyone, so it’s not an effective solution” (O’Neil).

If these thoughts are the kind serial killers have before committing a crime, it gives proof that, for serial killers, taking their own life was a solution to a biological problem (O’Neil). This gave the court the evidence they needed to file him insane. But was he insane during the time of the crime?

One in twenty-five people in the US live with a mental illness like Schizophrenia (Rothenberger). So how can we be sure that Holmes was one of those 1 in 25 people from just his words?

Holmes’ Final Sentence

In July of 2015, his sentence for taking the lives of so many people in 2012 was finally read to the public all over the world. While his sentences were being announced, he showed little emotion (Healy) even as he was being pulled away from his last moments of freedom. Even during the witnesses’ statements, he remained emotionless. His mother goes out at a press conference and tells the family of the victims “she knew her son felt remorse, but that his medications and mental illness made it difficult for him to convey [his feelings]” (Turkewitz).

Holmes is said to have schizophrenia, and days before the crime, he became paranoid and insanity ensued. It is said that “90% of 60% of perpetrators of mass shootings in the United States display the same symptoms. This includes acute paranoia, delusions, and depression” (Metzl). Other shooters, such as Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, who also had schizophrenia, tend to use the same form of murder. They go into a large area and kill others using guns.

Cases like this happen all the time, which has caused researchers to look more into it. They have reached the conclusion that:

(1) Mental illness causes gun violence

(2) Psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime before it happens

(3) US mass shootings teach us to fear mentally ill loners

(4) Because of the complex psychiatric histories of mass shooters, gun control “won’t prevent” another Tucson, Aurora, or Newtown.

The Americas with Disability Act

With the disability act, there is little that the American court system can actually agree on. Should James Holmes be put on death sentence?

The ADA defines disability in three aspects:

  1. “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”,
  2. “a person who has a history or record of such an impairment”
  3. “a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment”


Are comic books the problem?

DC comics superheros such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and more
Image Source: polygon.com

Comic books are a huge part of pop culture. James Holmes, like many others, was also a fan of this medium. On the day he decided to commit his crime, he chose to do it during the premiere of the Batman series. While there were rumors that he chose to act out The Joker’s actions, it is just a rumor. Holmes was said to refer to himself as The Joker, by dying his hair red. This was to represent himself as the enemy of justice, in this case, of Batman. While many comic book characters are represented as heroes in trying times, such as Captain America and Wonder Woman, it is important to remember they are just that.

These heroes are not real, and we should not try to act out like any of them. Comic book characters represent something to everyone. From an upstander to a hero, they vary in the definition of the average person. Their actions, though, are not to be used in the real world, where there are real-life consequences for them. (Chhabra)

Consequences of keeping Holmes in jail

Taking away someone’s life has heavy consequences. In Holmes’ case, many victims argue that Holmes should take the death penalty. He has taken many innocent lives within a few minutes. The husband of one of the victims says “we want him to go into oblivion” (Healy). The grandfather of the youngest victim angrily responds “He’s still living and breathing. Our loved ones are gone” (Healy), showcasing how emotional this was for all of them. During the trials, Yahoo news stated that James Holmes had already absorbed at least $5.5 million in public money. Thinking about how much it would cost to keep him in prison for the rest of his life is unimaginable:

It is not more economical, necessarily, to execute a criminal than to keep him in confinement for life. The cost to the state of a capital offense trial and of all the subsequent appeals is exorbitant, as is the added cost of maintaining a prisoner on death row for what might be many years of appeal. Summary execution would of course reduce that cost and add something to the possibility of the penalty acting as a deterrent, but is unacceptable under our present concept of justice and due process. For those unwilling to accept that anyone in authority would consider mere economics in an issue of such gravity, I cite the recent case where the warden of a state penitentiary asked for legalization of lethal injection as a means of execution because it would cost only one dollar per head! (Sapangenberg)

Dead or Alive?

Keeping Holmes in prison seems to be more expensive than killing him at this point. The people of Colorado have spent three years trying to reach a decision, and keeping him in Colorado’s highest confinement is not enough. When people in jail see Holmes, they try to hurt him any chance they get. This was stated by “Mark Daniels, as the two inmates crossed paths inside the state’s highest security prison” (Mitchell). People are going to all extents to somehow hurt Holmes after the crime he committed. Imamates purposefully try to harm him every chance they get (Mitchell).

The only people who want Holmes to live are his parents. While the families of the deceased want him dead after he hurt so many people, even killing a small child who was six years old. Even the district attorney responded with “Any regrets? Sure” (Roberts) adding the importance of even the district attorney’s voice on the matter of James Holmes’ freedom to live.

Image of James Holmes in handcuffs with a cop in court
Image Source: cpr.org

Significance in Cultural Anthropology

This case caught the attention of more than just the victims. No one was fully aware of Holmes’ mental stability, they just wanted him to understand their pain. Judge Samour told the courtroom that a woman had testified that she wanted Mr. Holmes to feel the same pain she did. Keeping him in jail would be the best middle ground for both families as he is not dead, but being alone in solitary consignment. It would make any human go insane, even more than Holmes already is. Killing an insane man is not a wise decision either. It would just bring forth more people into the fire of hatred for all this.

Nine years have gone by and six years since Holmes was put in prison, yet the memories of the lost ones and the terror remain. Hugo, the son of the comedian Mr. Melody is now nine years old. Veronica would have been fifteen years old, going to high school right now. All of that reminds the citizens of Aurora of how lucky they are to have both their parents and loved ones around. Even after all these years have passed, though, people are still having to pay for Holmes’ mess.

Images of the victims who died in the Aurora shooting
Image Source: foxnews.com

Mental Health is an important topic to study more on, as the rise of mass shootings continues. At least every day, a mass shooting happens somewhere within the United States. Many of these shooters are those who have some sort of mental illness. It is difficult to figure out how to help these people without learning more about them.

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