Tuesday's arraignment of James Holmes, accused of mass murder in Colorado, is a rarity among massacre suspects.
scheduled to enter a plea for the July 2012 murders of 12 patrons in a
suburban Denver movie theater and the attempted murder of nearly 60
others, is just one of a handful of suspects to face legal proceedings
in a case involving no prior connection to murder victims.
2006, there have been 200 mass killings - defined by the FBI as four or
more victims. But although random shootings like those involving Holmes
and Newtown, Conn., shooter Adam Lanza may be high-profile for the
senseless nature of the killings and the random targeting of victims,
there have been just 29 such massacres since 2006.
Most of the rest involved relatives and acquaintances, robberies, burglaries or disputes over illegal drugs.
the 29 massacre suspects like Holmes, few make it to trial. Fifteen
committed suicide at or near the scene of the crime; three others were
killed by police. Just five of the 29 - including Arizona shooter Jared
Loughner - were ultimately convicted. Many were determined to be
suffering from mental illness when they committed their crimes.
Ignacio is now on trial for the arson-related deaths of five Guatemalan
immigrants in a Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment building. Awaiting trial:
Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, a military psychiatrist accused of killing 13 and
wounding 32 at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009.
most cases, a motive will never be known. Although schizophrenia,
delusions, depression and other behavioral issues factor into many mass
public killings, some suspects' behavior before killing rampages don't
raise sufficient red flags among family, friends, fellow workers or
"In the vast majority of these cases, these are
people who never have killed before," notes University of Alabama
criminologist Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.
mass killings appear to provide instigators both compensation for
failures in their lives and a way to act out, Lankford says.
people feel they're victims of conspiracies or persecution. In that
moment (of a killing rampage), they have more power and status than they
ever had before. People are literally bowing down to them, ducking the
bullets," he says.
Two murder cases ended with the suspects
declared mentally unfit to stand trial. Two others are pending. In
California, One Goh, charged with killing seven people at Oikos
University, is undergoing evaluation every six months. Scott Dekraai,
charged with eight murders in Seal Beach, is being treated for bipolar
disorder but has not been declared unfit for trial.
Of the five
people convicted in mass public slayings since 2006, four - including
Loughner - had mental health diagnoses that did not prevent them
standing trial. Just one - Conner Schierman, now on death row in
Washington state for killing four neighbors in 2006 - did not have a
mental health diagnosis. Schierman has apologized to victims' families,
but gave no motive.
Holmes is expected to plead not guilty by
reason of insanity, a move that would require an evaluation by state
psychiatrists to determine his competency.
Holmes' attorneys have
said in court hearings that the 25-year-old suffers from mental illness
and had been treated by a University of Colorado psychiatrist before
dropping out of the school's doctoral neuroscience program after failing
a May final exam.
A Monday court ruling by presiding Judge
William Sylvester clarifies Holmes' options. Should Holmes use an
insanity defense, Sylvester said that Holmes could be medicated by state
psychiatrists to determine his competency and that he could also be
given a polygraph examination as part of the state's evaluation to
determine whether he was legally insane at the time of the July 20
Veteran criminal attorneys say Holmes has few options,
noting the overwhelming evidence presented by prosecutors at a January
preliminary hearing in which they showed Holmes' actions leading up to
the shootings, including weapons purchases and staking out the Aurora
theater complex, where he was arrested by Aurora Police.
no defense other than insanity,'' says Craig Silverman, a former chief
deputy Denver prosecutor. "There's a significant chance he's suffering
from a mental disease or defect that rendered him incapable of knowing
right from wrong."
If Holmes is judged capable of standing trial,
he could ultimately face the death penalty if convicted of murder.
Arapahoe County prosecutors have not said whether they are seeking
Even so, Colorado has not carried out an
execution since 1997. The appellate process could drag out a case for
years. Silverman notes that convicted Aurora, Colo., killer Nathan
Dunlap has been on death row since 1993.
Dan Recht, a former Colorado state public defender, agrees with an insanity plea.
is not a 'Who Done It?' case,'' Recht says. "The evidence is beyond
dispute. The only real question is whether his illness rises to the
level of insanity and if he understood right from wrong when he
committed those acts."
Recht says Holmes' case is comparable to
that of Loughner, who suffered from mental illness but was put on
medication then reached a plea deal that sent him to prison for life
A similar plea bargain in Holmes' case would avoid
a costly trial and prevent victims and victims' families from reliving
last summer's shootings, Recht says.