The Myth of the “Evil” Defendant: Reflections on the Aurora Theater Shooting Case
On August 7, 2015, after a trial lasting a total of almost seven months, a jury in Arapahoe County, Colorado returned a verdict that spared our client, James Holmes, from the death penalty. Mr. Holmes was convicted of killing twelve people and wounding seventy others at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012. His crime was one of the most horrific and tragic acts of mass violence in recent American history.
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Holmes was a first-year neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC Riverside, and was raised in suburban San Diego in a loving and supportive upper middle-class family. He was described by everyone who knew him growing up as self-depricating, calm, and kind.
Mr. Holmes has a history of serious mental illness on both sides of his family. At the time of the shooting, he was 24 years old, which is within the age range during which males most frequently experience the onset of schizophrenia. During his first year of graduate school, he began having intrusive homicidal thoughts and developed a delusional belief that he could increase his “human capital” by killing other people. He voluntarily sought help from a psychiatrist, to whom he disclosed his homicidal thoughts.
A few months later, Mr. Holmes dropped out of school. A frugal person his entire life who had never previously expressed any interest in firearms, he spent thousands of dollars on guns, ammunition, and ballistic gear and began frequenting shooting ranges. He dyed his hair orange, created profiles on adult dating websites, built improvised explosive devices in his apartment, and finally, opened fire on the theater. All of this was completely out of character with the person he had been his entire life.
Each of the four psychiatrists who forensically examined Mr. Holmes following the shooting agreed he suffers from a serious and chronic mental illness on the schizophrenia spectrum of disorders. All agreed that Mr. Holmes was not faking his illness. All agreed that Mr. Holmes’s mental illness had a profound influence on his thoughts, behaviors, and actions. All agreed that but for his mental illness, the crime would never have taken place.
Every piece of this evidence of mental illness was presented at the trial, which was live-streamed on the internet and received extensive media coverage. However, for us, his attorneys, one of the most troubling and frustrating aspects of this case was that despite every indication that this tragic crime was caused by a disease with a biological basis, the public discourse about the case has largely been about the extent to which Mr. Holmes is not just mentally ill, but “evil.”
This narrative was advanced largely, though certainly not exclusively, by George Brauchler, the elected district attorney who prosecuted the case and made the decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Holmes. In an interview in the aftermath of the life verdict he professed, “One thing is clear about this guy: Mental illness and evil are not mutually exclusive.” He told reporters that Mr. Holmes did what he did because “he wanted to be evil.” At a speech given to local Republicans in September 2015 following an afternoon of golf, he described Mr. Holmes’s crime in this way: “When evil showed up [at the theater], it had been planning to do what it was going to do for over 2 ½ months.”
If the sole metric by which “evil” is identified and measured were the amount of harm caused by a person, then there would not be much debate about the application of this term to Mr. Holmes. But this narrative of “evil” seems to be about more. It implies a judgment about Mr. Holmes’s character, his true nature, his lack of humanity. Defining someone as evil suggests that the person is permanently beyond human understanding.
We whole-heartedly believe that this narrative of evil is false. Why, then, did it take such hold? One explanation is that it is more justifiable to seek the death penalty against a person who is viewed as “evil” than someone who is sick.
But there is more to it than that. The narrative of evil offers a clear explanation for an otherwise incomprehensible tragedy. Branding Mr. Holmes as “evil” allows us to divide the world up in terms of good and bad, black and white, in a way that makes sense. What do we do with evil people? We exterminate them. End of discussion.
Second, branding someone as “evil” makes us feel safer from ourselves. Mental illness can strike anyone. But if people like Mr. Holmes are really just “evil” then we don’t have to worry about one of our own committing a mass atrocity. Nor is there any need to feel compassion for the “evil” one. We are spared from the thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Finally, casting someone who has committed a horrific crime as “evil” absolves us as a society from playing any role in the horrors that have occurred. A person who is “evil” is exclusively responsible for his or her own conduct. It is not our fault – because they are just “evil”, there is nothing we could have done to stop them.
But labeling a mentally ill person as “evil” sets us back several centuries in terms of the way we think about mental illness. As of 2009, 71 percent of Americans still believed that mental illness is caused by mental weakness. 65 percent believed that mental illness is the product of poor parenting. 35 percent believed that mental illness is a form of retribution for sinful or immoral behavior. What’s worse, by branding people with serious mental illnesses as “evil”, we ensure that the public remains ignorant of essential facts about mental illness, including how to recognize early signs and symptoms.
The simplistic narrative of “evil” also prevents us from examining the ways that society contributes to the problem. For example, Mr. Holmes was able to legally purchase four firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition and ballistic gear unbeknownst to the psychiatrist he was seeing at the time. Moreover, Mr. Holmes’s psychiatrist determined that she did not have enough evidence of imminent dangerousness to involuntarily hospitalize him, despite the fact that he repeatedly disclosed having homicidal thoughts three or four times a day. There are no easy answers to the issues raised by these facts, but by pronouncing Mr. Holmes to be “pure evil” and then pushing on in search of the next “evil” killer to banish from our midst, we disable ourselves from even having a conversation about them.
Perhaps most importantly, it makes us less human when we dehumanize others by pronouncing them as “evil.” Adopting this narrative about Mr. Holmes enables us to feel morally superior to him. But ultimately, the narrative requires us to strip him of his humanity while we denounce him as “evil” for stripping the victims of theirs.
In the end, Mr. Holmes received a life sentence. Several of the jurors were convinced that his severe mental illness reduced his moral culpability despite the magnitude of the crime. This was a successful outcome for those of us in the defense community who believe that it is wrong to execute the seriously mentally ill. But the narrative of “evil” that was advanced in the aftermath of this case demonstrates that we still have a long way to go.
A 2014 study of the last 100 offenders executed in America revealed that the overwhelming majority of these offenders, nearly nine of every ten, possessed mitigating characteristics that demonstrated significant intellectual or psychological deficits. By and large, when the death penalty is imposed in this country, it is imposed upon people who, like Mr. Holmes, have diminished personal moral culpability either because of mental illness, intellectual disability, youthfulness, or childhood trauma. In other words, when we do execute people, we are not executing “evil” people. We are executing sick, damaged, and broken people. At the very least, we are executing people who only became “evil” because they were sick, damaged, broken, or a combination of those things, in the first place.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Holmes trial, we accepted an invitation by the Denver Law Review to contribute an article about the death penalty and the Holmes trial to its annual Tenth Circuit issue. In the article, the full text of which can be found here, we discuss this problematic narrative of evil in depth.
We decided to write the article because as public defenders, we felt it was important to continue to push back against a very public effort to dehumanize and demonize a young man who committed an unspeakable act of violence not because he is a monster, but because he is seriously mentally ill. Mr. Holmes’s case is just one example of countless instances in our line of work in which the simplistic narrative of ‘good versus evil’ fails to accurately portray the true causes of violent crime, which are almost always more complex than people want to believe.
Our hope is that eventually, both here in Colorado and nationwide, the public can be persuaded that the death penalty is a broken system. When it succeeds, it largely succeeds in killing broken people – not evil people. There is something profoundly disturbing about that.