Jury sentences James Holmes to life without parole

CTV reports,

Twelve jurors failed to agree on a death sentence for Colorado theatre shooter James Holmes, prompting shocked sobs from victims, police officers and his own mother. Holmes will instead spend the rest of his life in prison for fatally shooting 12 people.

The nine women and three men said they could not reach a unanimous verdict on each murder count. That automatically eliminates the death penalty for Holmes, who blamed the killings on mental illness.


One juror told reporters outside court that there was a single juror who refused to give Holmes the death penalty and two others who were wavering. The key issue was Holmes’ mental illness.

“All the jurors feel so much empathy for the victims. It’s a tragedy,” the juror said, refusing to give her name. “It’s a devastating result no matter what. I am deeply, deeply sorry — that isn’t even the word.”

The verdict was a surprise because a week ago (before the victim impact testimony) the jury decided that the mitigation evidence did not outweigh the aggravation evidence. I was surprised since that is the legal test for deciding whether to impose the death penalty or life without parole. I suspect the change might be the due to the difference in believing you can kill someone versus actually doing it. Someone on that jury could not pull the proverbial trigger.

A month ago, I predicted this result when I wrote, James Holmes death penalty trial is a colossal waste of time and money.

The prosecution is seeking the death penalty even though there is no question that Holmes was mentally ill but legally sane at the time of the shootings — one psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from schizotypal disorder while a second psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from shizoaffective disorder — and he offered to plead guilty to a life-without-parole sentence. After the prosecution rejected the defense offer, Holmes changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity.


We who have experience representing clients in death penalty cases* refer to the guilt phase in a slam dunk case like this as a slow-motion guilty plea. That is, when we lack a defense, instead of pleading guilty, we use the guilt phase to introduce evidence that mitigates the seriousness of the offense. Holmes’s insanity defense is doomed because he admitted to police that he knew killing was wrong. But there is no dispute that he was mentally ill. While not a defense, mental illness is a powerful mitigating factor and, as I’ve said previously, I think the jury will likely vote for a life-without-parole sentence after the penalty phase for the simple reason that killing somebody who was mentally ill through no fault of their own is morally and ethically repugnant to most people.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again, this trial has been a colossal waste of taxpayer time and money.

*I was a death penalty lawyer until I retired in 2005.


13 Responses to Jury sentences James Holmes to life without parole

  1. GB says:

    Perhaps the jury wanted to convey the message that it is not a matter of mitigating factors weighing heavier than aggravating factors, rather mental illness precludes execution no matter what the aggravating factors.

  2. knowlyn says:

    I was skeptical (of juries, not you) when you posted your “colossal waste of time and money” blog. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong!

    • Thanks. It was a mighty close call. Closer than I thought it would be. I think it’s noteworthy that 2 other jurors were on the fence. Their indecision may have stiffened the resolve of the holdout while weakening the push-back of the other 9.

      Also, unlike the guilt phase instruction that tells jurors to try to reach a unanimous verdict, the penalty phase instruction tells them to reach their own individual verdict. There is no pressure to be unanimous. Many people overlook this critical difference.

    • The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article on mental illness and the death penalty.

      While most Americans still favor the death penalty (63-33 percent for those convicted of murder, according to the most recent Gallup survey), a clear majority oppose the ultimate punishment for those diagnosed with severe mental illness amounting to insanity – 58-28 percent, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey showed last December.

      Unfortunately, the word ‘insanity’ is a legal term with a specific definition that most people, including many lawyers, do not know. Holmes suffers from schizophrenia, but he isn’t insane because he knows the difference between right and wrong. I imagine most responders to the poll may have been thinking of schizophrenia, but we will never know.

      • GB says:

        Holmes was evidently insane, by the accepted meaning of the word.

        That he could not use the defense of legal insanity is a peculiarity of the law in the United States, which only allows that defense in cases where a person does not know right from wrong.

        Obviously, many insane people do know right from wrong, perhaps the majority of them.

  3. A good surprise. Twitter went crazy with disbelief yesterday.

    No one deserves the death penalty and especially not the mentally ill or by cop on the street. State-sanctioned murder doesn’t solve anything.

  4. racerrodig says:

    Exactly correct on all counts. You can tell by the expression on his face he’s not wired right. If he has mental issues, and clearly he does, life in this case is the right call, but he’ll never get the help he needs and I don’t believe there is a true way of treating and “curing” these mental issues.

    But that’s the topic for another blog.

  5. bettykath says:

    I commend the lone juror who opted for life over death for a gravely ill young man. Let’s hope he can get the kind of treatment he needs. I don’t really expect it considering the kind of medical treatment given to other high profile inmates, (Mumia, Leonard Peltier), but I can hope for it.

    • Yes, I also commend the juror.

      ‘Hope’ is the correct word because they probably will place him in solitary, deny him his meds and ignore his screaming and pounding on the door. That’s how the mentally ill are treated in prison.

      • I don’t know about Colorado, but some states have state hospitals with wards for the criminally insane, where they do get their meds and ongoing treatment. These institutions are fairly bleak places, but a step up from state and federal prisons.

      • Don’t know about Colorado, but some states have state hospitals with wards for the criminally insane where they do get meds and ongoing treatment. Bleak places, but a step up from state and federal prisons.

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