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Diane Dimond: Why the Colorado Theater-Shooting Trial Is So Important

So here comes another headline-grabbing criminal trial. James Holmes, now 27, stands accused of murdering 12 and wounding 70 others in a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July 2012. Opening statements in the capital murder case are set for Monday.

Ho-hum, you say? I beg to differ.

This trial is massively important for anyone who wants to understand what possesses young men to grab guns, randomly shoot to kill total strangers and then plead not guilty by reason of insanity. It promises to give us a rare glimpse into the troubled mind of a mass shooter. All too often they turn the gun on themselves or force a suicide by cop. And we are left with nothing but questions.

Why did they do it? How did they pick their victims? Had they sought mental health treatment and were turned away for lack of space? If the shooter wanted to die, why did they kill so many others in the process?

And all too often we accept unsatisfactory explanations like, “He was just evil, I guess.” If that’s the case, I want to understand where that evil seed was planted and how it was nurtured.

Or if, as Holmes’ defense team maintains, this was a case of uncontrollable mental illness, I want to know why no one noticed or offered him help before it was too late.

If Holmes, an honored neuroscience student pursuing his Ph.D, is so mentally ill that he sought to destroy strangers who had simply gathered to watch a midnight showing of a Batman movie, then why is the state of Colorado seeking the death penalty? Is that what we do to sick people?

Ah, back to the importance of this trial. It is up to a court of law to decide whether Holmes suffered a psychotic break that awful summer evening or whether he knew exactly what he was doing.

Among the evidence the jury will surely hear is how young Holmes stockpiled mail-ordered ammunition, manufactured 30 homemade hand grenades and brought in gallons of gasoline to booby-trap his apartment for maximum damage to the investigators he knew would come. Did those actions reveal his coherent premeditation?

The jury will also hear that before the shooting, one of his University of Colorado psychiatrists had reported to campus police that Holmes had made “homicidal statements.” He had sent text messages to a fellow student mentioning dysphoric mania and warning her to stay away, “because I am bad news.” An expert witness is likely to explain that schizophrenia and other mental illnesses mostly take hold in young men around the ages of 18 to 25 — just like Holmes.

The trial is also an important window into how our criminal justice system works.

Guess how much this process has cost so far? An analysis done from public records shows that as of February 2015, this case has gobbled up $5.5 million in public money. That doesn’t include the bill for Holmes’ public defenders. The probable final tab? $10 million or more.

One more lesson about a death penalty trial. If the defendant is found guilty, there is a built-in guarantee of years of appeals. Years more for victims’ families and survivors to have to testify at hearings and re-live the horror.

Arlene Holmes, the defendant’s mother, has published a small prayer journal she’s kept since the shooting (proceeds to go to mental health services) in which she repeatedly says there is no need for a trial.

“He could go to prison for life. What good does the death penalty do?” she writes. Thoughts no mother in her position can be criticized for thinking.

She also reveals her crash course in the law and mental disorders, admitting she thought her son was just “very shy” — until the shooting.

“I thought what my son did was completely insane,” she says. “He did what no sane man would do. But the law says a man who knows murder is wrong, then murders anyway, is sane.”

It is doubtful Holmes will take the stand in his own defense, but a boatload of information about his personal life, his scholastic failures in the months before the shooting and his overall mental state will be revealed. A rare glimpse into the motivations and mind of the man police say carried out a premeditated mass murder. It’s information we need to understand.

Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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