Reader’s View: Two tragedies in Aurora

The Aurora theater shooting trial has been going on for almost a month now and as testimony continues, it is apparent that the shooter’s crimes have spawned two terrible tragedies, one of which can still be averted.

Of course, everyone is well aware of the first tragedy: In the early morning of July 20, 2012, James Holmes entered theater 9 at the Aurora Century 16 multiplex movie theater, armed to the teeth, and proceeded to murder 12 innocent people, wound 58 others, and inflict pain and misery on dozens of those victims’ families, loved ones and friends.

The trial is the second regrettable tragedy. Commencing almost three years after the theater massacre, the trial is expected to last four full months. During that time, 24 jurors will be subjected to thousands of exhibits and hundreds of witnesses’ recounting the terrible events of July 20, photos of puddles of blood and body parts on the floor of the theater, and life-long disabilities and trauma of the surviving victims. The jurors will also be subjected to weeks of conflicting expert witness testimony about Holmes’ mental state at the time of the massacre: Did he or did he not appreciate the difference between right and wrong at the time he fired the shots, such that he could understand that his acts were, in fact, wrongful?

So, why is this trial the “second tragedy” to come out of the Aurora theater shooting? Because it is completely unnecessary.

Way back in late March 2013, Mr. Holmes offered to plead guilty and to spend the rest of his life behind bars, in a jail cell, not a mental hospital. But the newly elected District Attorney, George Brauchler, turned down that offer – one that would have averted the present trial and have taken Mr. Holmes off the front pages of newspapers two years ago. That is what happened to Jared Lee Loughner, the young man who shot and killed six individuals in Tucson, Arizona and wounded thirteen others, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The federal prosecutor accepted Lougher’s guilty plea for life in prison with no possibility of parole and no appeals. As a result, no one has mentioned Mr. Loughner nor recounted his crimes and the suffering of his victims since he was carted off to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Loughner had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. And, according to the Public Defender’s opening statement in Arapahoe County, every one of the mental health experts who has studied Mr. Holmes, reviewed his health records and interviewed him extensively agrees that he has a well-documented medical diagnosis of schizophrenia – a sometimes debilitating and genetically-based mental illness that extends back to Holmes’ childhood. At the time he began “methodically planning” his barbaric rampage assault on theater 9, Holmes was in the throes of psychotic delusional thinking that afflicts some, but not all, diagnosed schizophrenics in their early-to-mid 20s. He wrote in his daily journal about his “need” to kill as many people as possible as a means to enhance his own “human capital.” These are not the thoughts of an ordinary criminal mind.

Does Holmes’ severe mental health disease excuse his deadly attack of July 20, 2012? That is what the jury, in the first “guilt” phase of the trial, must decide. Assuming they determine Holmes was not “not guilty by reason of insanity,” they must then decide whether Holmes should be executed for those crimes.

But even if the jury – having suffered through months of testimony and evidence that may well require many of them to seek therapy for post-traumatic distress disorder for years to come – votes to impose the death penalty, the odds are that Holmes will die behind bars before all of his appeals are exhausted and the death penalty is actually imposed. And throughout those decades of appeals to come, Holmes’ legal proceedings will be a frequent subject of press attention that serve to re-traumatize the victims, their loved ones and the jurors.

So, why is the DA imposing this additional pain and suffering on the victims’ families (only some of whom asked that he pursue capital punishment)? All of this could have been completely avoided had the DA accepted Holmes’s guilty-plea offer two years ago. No doubt, Mr. Holmes stands ready to so plead today. Thus, this second tragedy can still be averted.

The DA should do the right thing and put an end to this second tragedy: Accept Mr. Holmes’ plea, lock him up and throw away the key, and let the victims’ families, the jurors, witnesses and all of us put both of these tragedies behind us once and for all.


Photo credit: Alan Ajifo, Creative Commons, Flickr.