CENTENNIAL, Colorado — The man who killed 12 moviegoers and wounded scores of others in a suburban Denver theater was mentally ill but legally sane, a court-appointed psychiatrist testified Thursday.
Prosecutors called Dr. William Reid to testify as they meticulously painted a portrait of James Holmes as a calculating if unstable killer — an image that defense attorneys will then try to destroy with their own complex narrative.
Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Jurors have the final decision, and Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. has repeatedly told them they may ignore all the expert testimony if they wish. The case turns on legal subtleties, presenting a challenge for laypeople that was clear as soon as Reid gave his central opinion from the witness stand Thursday.
Reid, who interviewed a medicated Holmes two years after the shooting, declared that whatever mental illness Holmes had, "it did not prevent him from forming intent and knowing the consequences of what he was doing."
The defense quickly asked to speak to the judge and requested a mistrial, but their arguments weren't audible. Samour denied the request.
Reid acknowledged that much had changed between the attack and his interview. He said Holmes suffered a "physical and mental breakdown" in November 2012, five months after his arrest, when he was treated at a Denver hospital and began taking anti-psychotic and other medications.
Reid said that in order to get a picture of Holmes at the time of the shooting, he spent 300 hours reading reports from other mental health experts who had examined Holmes, talking to the defendant's friends and parents and watching videotapes of him in jail in the days immediately after the attack.
Jurors saw and heard some of Reid's videotaped interviews with Holmes on Thursday. In one segment, Holmes tells Reid he sometimes cries before he goes to bed because he regrets the shooting.
Holmes had just dropped out of a graduate neuroscience program before the attack. Because he pleaded insanity, prosecutors have to prove he was sane, and therefore guilty, at the time of the attack. Prosecutors want him executed, not sent to a mental hospital.
Officials at the state mental health hospital asked Reid to evaluate Holmes after Samour ruled an earlier state-ordered review of his sanity was flawed. On the opening day of the trial, District Attorney George Brauchler said both Reid and Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, who conducted the first evaluation in December 2013, had determined Holmes was legally sane.
While denying the defense request for a mistrial Thursday, Samour acknowledged Reid came close to offering an opinion not simply on whether Holmes was capable of understanding right from wrong, as he is legally allowed to do, but strayed into an area that is up to the jury — deciding the defendant's exact state of mind on the night of the massacre.
After a break to discuss defense objections to Reid's testimony and how best to explain Colorado law on insanity, jurors were brought back in and the judge repeated instructions he has given them previously. He said the statute defines a defendant as insane if he or she was so mentally diseased or deficient at the time of committing a crime as to be incapable of telling right from wrong, or of forming a culpable state of mind. Samour also told jurors that the measure of right and wrong is determined by society, not individuals.
Brauchler then asked Reid "to be precise" about his findings. The psychiatrist gave the briefest possible responses, but his conclusion was the same.
Did Holmes have a serious mental illness? "Yes."
Despite that illness, did Holmes have "the capacity to know right from wrong" on July 19 and 20, 2012, the night of the attack? "Yes."
Did Holmes have the capacity to form the intent to act after deliberation, and to act knowingly? "Yes."
And did Holmes meet the legal definition of sanity? "Yes."
Earlier this week, prosecutors showed jurors a notebook in which Holmes, before the attack, described his mind as "broken" and sketched out his choices as he saw them: mass murder or serial murder; attack a theater or an airport; use guns, bombs or biological warfare.