Opinion: Mental illness an explanation, not an excuse for Colorado shootings
Accused movie theater shooter James Holmes makes his first court appearance on July 23, 2012, in Centennial, Colorado.
August 1st, 2012
06:00 AM ET

Opinion: Mental illness an explanation, not an excuse for Colorado shootings

Editor's note: Jack Levin, Ph.D. is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University. He has authored or co-authored 30 books, including the recently published volume "Serial Killers and Sadistic Murderers—Up Close and Personal and The Violence of Hate."

By Jack Levin, Special to CNN

(CNN) - My colleague James Alan Fox and I have studied hundreds of cases of mass murder, including those committed at random in shopping malls, churches, health clubs, and cinemas.

Almost every killer who opens fire indiscriminately in a public place seems to have been delusional, paranoid, and hallucinatory.

Yet no matter how definitive the evidence, this conclusion does not sit well with Americans who seek justice for seemingly "crazy" acts of violence. It seems to me that many people would prefer to believe that mass killers are evil rather than sick.

Colorado movie shooting suspect charged with murder

Part of the reason may be that the attribution of illness sounds like an excuse rather than an explanation.

The label “evil” distances the killer from “normal” people in the minds of most Americans, but illness does not. Millions of Americans suffer from depression; millions more have anxiety disorders, and they wouldn’t kill anyone.

Most individuals do not regard themselves as evil; they have a conscience, feel empathy for victims, and are remorseful when they do the wrong thing.

Remembering the Colorado shooting victims

In short, they believe themselves and their family members to be nothing like the killer in Aurora, and that makes them feel more secure.

Public opinion surveys indicate that Americans hate the insanity defense, and they may be afraid that a diagnosis of serious mental illness would only prevent justice from being served.

In reality, just 1% of all felony defendants attempt the insanity plea, and only one-third are successful.

Mass murderers take the lives of at least four victims simultaneously in one or two locations, and are about 1% of approximately 15,000 homicides committed in the United States during any given year.

The influence of such rampages, however, goes far beyond numbers.

These hideous and brutal murders are important not only for the pain and suffering they cause, but also because they often inspire ineffective changes in public policy and the law.

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For example, the Aurora mass killing has renewed support for a ban on semi-automatic weapons, when the overwhelming majority of homicides–some 12,000 yearly–are committed with small-caliber handguns. Legislators should be talking about how to get guns off the streets and out of the hands of 17-year-old boys.

Having studied mass killings for more than 30 years, I suspected from the beginning that the alleged perpetrator of the Aurora, Colorado, massacre was seriously mentally ill. Not surprisingly, it was revealed that he had been seeing a psychiatrist.

Shooting suspect was a psychiatric patient

Most mass killers are not psychotic; they tend to be middle-aged men whose psychopathology is situational. That is, they have suffered some catastrophic loss—the loss of a job, an important relationship during a nasty separation, or academic standing—and they seek to get even with those particular individuals they are convinced are responsible for their miseries.

Court appearance fuels theories about Colorado shooting suspect

The Aurora killer was different in several respects. He was only 24 years old—hardly middle-aged like most mass killers. He seemed disoriented in court, and was thoroughly confused about whether or not to blow up police officers, actually informing them of his booby-trapped apartment before they could enter and be blown away.

It is conceivable that he actually believed himself to be the Joker from the Batman comics. Psychotics are hard-pressed to recognize the difference between fantasy and reality, and the killer had been obsessed with superheroes long before he went on his rampage.

What frequently gets left out of state laws defining the insane mind-set of a killer is his reason for the rampage: Does the killer really believe himself to be a character out of a Batman film? Does he see his victims as cinematic villains rather than as flesh and blood human beings?

The insanity defense is perhaps the only chance the defendant has to avoid being executed.

One factor that can lead a jury to reject finding a defendant insane is to determine that he premeditated his attack. Planning sounds so rational. How can a killer who methodically executes a large number of victims be crazy? Most mass killers plan methodically; they don’t seem confused.

The Columbine rampage was planned for 13 months. The Virginia Tech massacre was worked out for at least a few weeks, perhaps even longer.

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There is a false belief among some jurors that the insane defendant will somehow be released in a few months after being convicted and then determined to be sane again by a few psychiatrists.

In reality, those killers who are found not guilty by reason of insanity spend just as much time incarcerated as those who are convicted.

The massacre at a midnight movie screening in Aurora was an unforgivably hideous crime, and begs to be understood. The court would not be excusing the killer, even if he is determined to be psychotic. Rather, it would be an explanation of why he killed.

Even if the defendant deserves to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, chances are that it won’t happen. There is only one defendant in court, only one individual on trial for the murder of 12 innocent people.

The reasoning is simple but wrong: If the defendant isn’t responsible for a vicious mass murder, then who is?

Jurors tend to feel exactly like the family of the victims.

They are reluctant to let the killer off the hook–even if he is insane.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jack Levin.

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Lynn

    As a therapist, I am so glad to finally read someone defending the truth of mental health issues. I hope it comes out all over what this human being who killed was dealing with his whole life. Maybe we can be better educated on the signs of severe mental health problems in our children, our teens, our adult children, our neighbors' children, our students, our clients and patients. By all means, he should be held accountable for his behavior, and his diagnosis should be recognized and accounted for as part of his defense. Thank you so much for your article!

    September 9, 2012 at 2:02 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jorge

    This country is producing a crop of sleeper sociopaths, social idiots with no natural discernment who get triggered by the media through the hypnotic commercial verborrea that gets shot at them 40 times a second via the Boob Tube, be it by interminable corporate drones, political hacks or Elmer Gantry types who have no business talking about divinity. Worthless, soulless zombies feeding drivel to each other until one of them explodes, every once in a while, with tragic effect. The blind, deaf and dumb leading their peers.

    August 6, 2012 at 7:34 am | Report abuse |
  3. VLR

    I want to know if the psychiatrist put him on any of the currently popular and aggressively marketed antidepressants.

    August 4, 2012 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jay

    They should change the term to "GUILTY BY REASON OF INSANITY" if it is an explanation and not an excuse. I agree with the article but feel society encourages more of these mass murders by too quickly trying to provide an explanation and placing blame on someone or something other than the individual committing the act. It’s the gun’s fault, parents didn’t love him enough, time are tough, and coming soon to Colorado, it’s the university’s fault.

    August 3, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  5. travis

    i, believe all the answers are with his dr.(lynne fenton) he was seeing her as a patient. cnn reported that she made
    a report to her beta team. but, since he dropped out of school. they had no further control of him. as weird as this seems. being a social introvert is simply not healthy. mind, body , spirit. it has to take a toll on you. if you have just one friend. i think your doing well. maybe if he had or wanted that. it might have helped. i dont think he should get the death penalty. maybe an asylum for the criminally insane. where he can receive treatment. and maybe someday . undestand what he has done.

    August 2, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Debb

    Many, many thanks to Dr. Jack Levin for sharing his expertise. I hope that a few are able to honestly hear what has been said here, and understand that an illness; a psychotic break is just that, as much as it may appear that someone is functioning in a state of reality, his or her reality isn't the same as the reality that those of use who are not suffering mental illness live within.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    August 2, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jonathan

    No way do I execute this guy...nor any.. we can asorb all the murderers in society without killing them any of them at all... lte them live...of course put them away... they are just not fruitful excepte for the biter grapes they just brought forth... but revenge is not the answer...

    August 1, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Hamsta

    Just for those gun control whackos: being as this man bought all of his weapons "legally" and the first step of the legal process is to check crimimal background and MENTAL ILLNESS HISTORY, this is just more evidence that their laws have MASSIVELY FAILED and put your life in jeopardy because gun free zones and razor fences only make you a SITTONG DUCK LOCKED IN A CAGE, AN EASY TARGET. If just one citizen had a gun, maybe a lot of lives would have been saved.

    August 1, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • gerbil

      If we had better gun control, mentally ill people (or anyone else) would not have access to automatic/semiautomatic weapons. Ever see anyone wipe out 12 lives and injure 50 more in a few seconds with a shotgun, or hunting rifle? The general public has no need for an AK47.

      August 2, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mickey1313

    There is no excuse. He it's not mental, he is smart, he it's faking it. He should not even get a trial, he is the reason we have the patriot act. He is a terrorist, put him in gtmo.

    August 1, 2012 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan

      you sound childish... we are all human and we all can reach the point where many like this yound man has...would you say the same thing if that were your brother or cousin or uncle ? 🙂

      August 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Debb

      And to what advantage, Mickey, would there be for Holmes to have "outsmarted" the law as you suggest, and live the rest of his life in an asylum behind bars, because he "pretended" to be mentally ill? What would he gain?

      August 2, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Greyhound

    But is loose gun control really an excuse? The guns that he used are not exactly new. AR15s have been available since 1964, the shotgun since 1950 and similar handguns have been available since before WW2. In fact, civilians used to be able to mail order a Tommy gun with no permits or background check. So why are all of these mass killings happening now?

    August 1, 2012 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Huh?

      Your argument is moot. David Koresh's cult were armed to the teeth. And if we go back in criminal history, I'm sure we can find alot of statistics that put the AR-15, shot-guns, and similar handguns used by "responsible gun owners" in crimes. And gangsters like Al Capone used Tommy Guns in alot of their shoot-outs like the Valentine's Day Massacre.

      August 1, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |