Since the spree killer James Holmes first appeared at his arraignment, the press has been speculating wildly as to whether or not he will be relying on an insanity defense in order to avoid punishment. The question is far less important than most believe, and we need to talk about the larger issues of mental illness as well.
Insanity could mitigate Holmes’s situation in any of three ways. The first, showing that Holmes is incompetent to aid in his own defense, would mandate that the court delay his trial until he has regained enough sanity to aid his lawyers. But the standard for competency is extremely low—a defendant need only show that he can provide relevant information (such as possible alibis and witnesses) to his attorneys so that they can defend him. In the vast majority of cases where defendants are found incompetent, defendants are treated sufficiently to be found competent within six months of treatment.
The second and third ways Holmes’s mental state could become relevant are related to each other. One would be if his attorneys chose to pursue an insanity defense. This defense often bothers observers, who foresee an “acquittal” (by reason of insanity) and believe that this would mean the defendant had “gotten off” without punishment. (While Holmes would not be incarcerated in a prison like sane criminals, he would still be incarcerated—but in a mental institution for the criminally insane.) Alternately, Holmes’s mental state could become relevant after the trial is over, when he is facing sentencing. It is possible that a judge or jury would find that he was mentally ill and that this illness mitigated his guilt, thereby saving him from the death penalty.
Both of the two scenarios above are extremely unlikely. Mental illness alone does not grant a defendant an insanity defense—instead he must be unable to tell the difference between right and wrong. If Holmes can prove that he was entirely delusional, and thought that he was shooting the Joker’s men, for instance, he might be acquitted by reason of insanity. But simply having a mental break and becoming depraved does not remotely qualify a person for the defense. Being crazy enough to want to act out a movie scene, for instance, will not earn Holmes an acquittal by reason of insanity. For this and other reasons, successful use of the defense is extremely rare, and it is unlikely to give prosecutors much pause.
The real question behind the insanity defense is not mental illness but moral guilt and the purposes of punishment. The defense, and the possibility that sentences be mitigated based on insanity, rely on the idea that a man who mistakes people for monsters is not morally culpable for shooting those monsters; or at least not as culpable as a man who shoots out of pure hatred, or out of uncontrollable anger (even if that anger is possibly aided by mental infirmity). A man who shoots out of mental infirmity is not as morally culpable as the entirely sane man who coldly and rationally decides to take a life. The sane murderer is more evil, while the insane killer is, theoretically, as helpless as his victims. Moreover, the insane might be cured, and if a cure is possible (and the defendant’s moral culpability diminished) the death penalty and other harsh punishments may be unnecessary. Finally, the truly insane are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of harsh punishment, so there is little reason to make an example of them.
But it is only a very specific type of insanity that allows this moral excuse, and that insanity is rarely present, even in those exceedingly few cases where the defense is attempted. Given the rarity of the success of the defense, we may generally rest assured that defendants are not (successfully) manipulating its existence in order to avoid the punishment they should be receiving. Successfully arguing insanity requires both overwhelming proof and a judge or jury that is extraordinarily open to that proof.
But Holmes’s mental state raises what may be a more important question: as spree killers continue to emerge, in school shootings, office shootings, and other mass attacks, what can be done to prevent such mentally disturbed individuals from fulfilling their crazed ambitions? If deterrence and moral socialization are impossible, as they appear to be in the cases of the truly mentally diseased, the country must find a different way to avoid the threat they pose—in other words, since we cannot stop them from trying, we must try to stop them from succeeding. This may include gun control laws, as making any step towards criminal activity more difficult lessens the likelihood that the crime will be committed, and it may involve increasing (financial) commitment to mental health issues across the country.
When a crime as horrendous as the Colorado shootings appears on the country’s radar, it is all too easy to jump to harsh punishment as a way to make ourselves feel better about the issue, as if executing one man will resolve the problem. But spree killers are not disappearing. The question of whether this one murderer should be sent to an institution or sent to his death should not be allowed to distract us from the fundamental question of how to stop the next mass murder before it happens.