Bloomberg Businessweek News: Accused Movie Shooter May Face Exam If He Pleads Insanity

By Jeff Kass and Joel Rosenblatt on March 12, 2013

A Colorado judge entered a not-guilty plea on behalf of James Holmes, who is accused of opening fire in a movie theater in July and killing 12 people.

Judge William Sylvester in state court in Centennial today gave prosecutors until April 1 to inform him whether they will seek the death penalty, a deadline they said they can meet.

Sylvester set a date of Aug. 5 for a four-week trial. Holmes, in prison garb and wearing a full beard, didn’t address the court.

The judge entered the plea at Holmes’s arraignment because a defense lawyer, Daniel King, said his client wasn’t ready to plead. The defense doesn’t know when it will be ready, King said. Defenders have said they are considering an insanity plea.

Prosecutors have said they might seek the death penalty, a step that might make Holmes the first capital defendant to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s insanity defense laws.

Sylvester told Holmes yesterday in a written order that, if he pleads insanity, he must submit to a mental examination.

The trial probably would be delayed by defense challenges to Colorado’s law allowing interviews while a defendant is under the influence of a so-called truth serum, said Karen Steinhauser, a former Denver prosecutor now in private practice.

Unique Case

“We have not had an insanity plea in a case in which the death penalty has been sought,” Steinhauser said.

Defense lawyers have also challenged a provision of the law blocking Holmes from calling witnesses to present evidence about his mental condition if he doesn’t cooperate with court-appointed psychiatrists, she said.

Sylvester previously decided that the constitutional issues aren’t before the court and declined to rule on them. They are likely to be litigated if prosecutors seek the death penalty, Steinhauser said.

“Once that decision is made, I think the defense will ask for reconsideration of the issues that were raised in their original motions pertaining to the death penalty sentencing phase,” she said.

Steinhauser said Holmes’s lawyers may still argue that he isn’t competent to stand trial, which would put the case on hold until he’s evaluated.

DA, Defense

Lisa Pinto, a spokeswoman for the Arapahoe County district attorney’s office, declined to comment on the arraignment. Doug Wilson, head of Colorado’s public defender’s office, didn’t return a call yesterday seeking comment on the case.

Sylvester ruled in January that the government established probable cause that Holmes committed the crimes of which he’s accused. Holmes, who studied neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Denver, is charged with 166 counts, including murder and attempted murder.

According to the judge’s ruling yesterday, prosecutors may require Holmes to submit to a “narcoanalytic interview” under the influence of “medically appropriate” drugs.

Such drugs can enable a person to recall something he is having difficulty remembering, Steinhauser said. Holmes’s lawyers have asked whether his refusal to take the drugs would amount to non-cooperation.

Non-Cooperation Effect

If Holmes fails to cooperate, Sylvester said, he will bar his lawyers from calling a psychiatrist or any other witness to present evidence about his mental condition. Any refusal to cooperate may result in any confessions, admissions and circumstantial evidence from the shooting being used as evidence, according to the order.

Holmes’s lawyers have raised “very legitimate issues” about Colorado law governing a guilty plea by reason of insanity, Steinhauser said. “Can you really preclude the defense from calling witnesses” who may offer testimony that might save a defendant’s life, she asked.

The case is People v. Holmes, 12-cr-01522, 18th Judicial District Court, Colorado (Centennial).

To contact the reporters on this story: Jeff Kass in Denver at; Joel Rosenblatt in San Francisco at

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