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James Holmes insanity defense: Judge sees 'good cause' to allow plea change

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“Sometimes evil looks a whole lot like insanity,” says Rashmi Goel, a criminal law expert at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “In general when people commit these kinds of atrocities our human response is to say they must be insane because what sane person would do this? But the standards for medical and legal insanity are not the same.”

Neither is the legal definition of insanity the same in every state. In Colorado, for instance, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to determine “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is sane once an insanity plea is introduced. In most states, it’s the opposite – the defense must affirmatively prove insanity. (Four states – Kansas, Montana, Idaho and Utah – don’t allow insanity defenses at all.)

In Colorado, however, they must simply show it’s more likely than not that Holmes was insane at the time he walked into a crowded movie theater and opened fire. At the same time, however, the state has a very narrow definition of insanity, which means Holmes’ attorneys will also have a high bar to clear in making their case.

“The reason this tension exists is because we want to serve real justice,” Ms. Goel says. “We want to make sure that assertions of insanity are rare, but also that we don’t punish someone who truly did not know what they were doing.” 

To show that Holmes is not guilty by reason of insanity, his counsel would look for proof that he both suffers from a mental illness and did not know what he was doing was wrong at the time he committed the crime.

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