James E. Holmes, age 27, is the only suspect in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people, along with injuries to 70. In a midnight screening of the film The Dark Night Rises, Holmes allegedly shot at the audience with a semi-automatic rifle, tactical shotgun, and handgun. The New York Times reported that his trial is set to begin soon, 2 ½ years after the shooting. 9000 people in Arapahoe County have been issued juror summons for the trial, which is 2% of the population. Jury selection alone could take months, with the trial expected to last 6 to 8 months.
The reason for the delayed and lengthy trial is that prosecutors rejected Holmes’ guilty plea, which would have meant life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. District Attorney George Brauchler seeks the death penalty, which has forced Holmes’ lawyers to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Is the prosecution correct to seek the death penalty?
There is no evidence that Holmes was part of a terrorist group. He was a PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado until about a month before the shooting. He dropped out of the program after doing poorly on an oral exam. Obviously an intelligent person, Holmes also had psychiatric problems. Although the details of his problems haven’t been fully made public yet, one of his psychiatrists reported to the campus police a month before the shooting that he made homicidal statements. It’s a reasonable assumption that his psychiatric problems interfered with his academic performance and forced him to drop out of school. Considering the bizarre, destructive, and irrational action he took at the movie theater, only a highly disturbed individual could have perpetrated this shooting.
Colorado has only executed one person since 1977, the last one being 17 years ago. The death penalty in Colorado, like in the rest of the country, isn't a deterrent. Only swift and certain punishment is an effective deterrent, and the death penalty is anything but swift and certain. Even if the death penalty was delivered like in the old days, in a reasonable time frame with reasonable certainty of death, it’s unlikely that this would have deterred someone in Holmes’ state of mind. Typically these mass homicides by disturbed individuals are murder-suicides. (Remember another Colorado tragedy, the Columbine school shootings?). There is no way that any (earthly) punishment would deter this type of crime.
The only way to prevent tragedies like this from happening is to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing firearms. As I blogged about in 2013, guns and mentally ill people go together like North Korea and nuclear weapons. I made a policy recommendation back then that has not yet been implemented: “Gun sales and ownership should be banned for anyone who has been treated for a psychiatric disorder—I mean anyone treated at any time in their life.” People with serious mental illness should not have access to firearms. The biggest threat is that they will harm themselves. In the U.S. in 2010, over 38,000 people committed suicide, with more than half using firearms. About 85% of suicide attempts with firearms are successful.
Holmes didn’t commit suicide, but he did legally purchase firearms that were used to murder 12 people. He was in psychiatric treatment. If my policy recommendation had been put into place, he would not have been able to legally purchase these firearms. If he went to the movie theater with a knife in hand, he could have easily been wrestled to the ground before doing much damage. Knowing this, I doubt that Holmes would have even tried it without a firearm.
The NRA has pretty much prevented any kind of gun control at all in the U.S. in recent years. Probably many NRA members would love to see Holmes executed, saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” In the case of the Aurora movie theater shooting, a person using a gun killed 12 people. If that person didn't have a gun, he wouldn't have killed that many people. He probably wouldn't have killed anyone at all.
Because of his mental illness, even if convicted Holmes most like won’t be executed. The state is wasting time, money, and resources pursuing the death penalty. They’ll waste more time, money, and resources on handling endless appeals. The average time between sentencing and execution in the U.S. is about 16 years. Even if somehow Holmes exhausts his appeals and is executed, the death penalty will not deter anyone from doing what Holmes allegedly did. To prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future, better gun control is needed.