Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sanity Laws In Colorado: Premeditation Does Not Rule Out Insanity

Yesterday, Judge Carlos Samour appointed a new sanity evaluator in the Aurora theater shooting case. The evaluator's name has been redacted from court documents, so the public does not know who this person is. But, he or she has a tough job. With an initial sanity evaluation almost certainly stating the shooter was insane, the new evaluator will need to review the old data objectively and conduct a new, independent evaluation.

A common sentiment expressed in comments sections and all over social media is that it is impossible for the shooter to be insane. Of course he is mentally ill, but he is not insane because he carefully planned his attack. Evidence shows he bought his ticket weeks in advance, amassed an arsenal of guns over a period of months, and set up a complicated bomb in his apartment--all of that required planning and premeditation. Although it was a horrible act, the shooter appeared to think though the details and plan it quite logically. How can he be insane if he planned the attack?

Well, in Colorado, there are three factors that need to be taken into consideration when assessing a defendant's sanity. According to C.R.S. § 16-8-101 et seq:

1. The defendant must have a "mental disease or defect." This is typically defined as a mental illness that "grossly and demonstrably impairs a person's perception or understanding of reality." Usually, a psychotic thought disorder such as Schizophrenia can be considered a mental disease or defect, as the person often hears voices or has delusional thoughts that constitute an impairment of reality. NOTE: If you are drunk or high, your perception of reality is probably impaired, but that does not count as a mental disease or defect (unless you are involuntarily drugged).

In this case, almost no one is disputing the theater shooter had a mental disease or defect at the time of the shooting. So, we must move on to number 2:

2. If the person's mental disease or defect causes him to be unable to form the culpable mental state necessary for the crime, then he is insane. The culpable mental state for First Degree Murder is "knowingly," which means the person must know his actions are going to cause the outcome (murder). The culpable mental state for the bomb charges is also "knowingly."

When a person plans an elaborate scheme, it is hard to argue he did so unknowingly. It is a fairly safe bet he knew his plans would end with people dying. And, this is why many people think the shooter is sane. He knew what he was doing would end in murder. Case closed.

Except for number 3:

3. Even if the person knew what he was doing would end in murder, if his mental disease or defect causes him to be unable to distinguish right from wrong with respect to the illegal actions, then he is insane.

It is most likely the right vs. wrong prong of the Colorado sanity laws where prosecutors and defense attorneys will duke it out. The shooter probably knew what he was doing, otherwise he would not have been able to plan it so effectively. But, if it is determined that he did not know what he was doing was wrong (because he was so confused about what was real and what was delusional), then it is possible a sanity evaluation and/or a jury could find him insane. Even if he knew what he was doing would end in murder.

One last thought: Colorado is an unusual state where the defendant in a sanity case is presumed to be insane. It is up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was sane at the time--they must unquestioningly prove to a jury that he knew what he was doing would end in murder and he knew right from wrong, even though he was seriously delusional and psychotic at the time.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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