IT’S CRAZY, I TELL YA! The Insanity Of The Insanity Plea

Written by Michael Cummings on May 8, 2015

On July 20, 2012, after purchasing a ticket to the midnight screening of the movie The Dark Knight, then 25-year-old James Eagan Holmes made his way to Theater 9 of the Century 16 multiplex. Instead of finding his seat, Holmes proceeded to the back of the theater, propped open the rear exit door, and walked to the parking lot behind the theater to his two door Toyota sedan. From the car Holmes put on a black gas mask and bullet proof vest (complete with groin and throat protectors), and armed himself with two Glock 22 40 caliber pistols, a Remington Model 870 12 gauge shotgun, a Smith & Wesson M&P 15T semi-automatic rifle chambered in .223, and at least one smoke bomb. He walked back into the theater, set off the smoke bomb, fired into the theater ceiling, and began a murdering spree that resulted in 12 dead and 70 injured. These horrible acts were committed after Holmes had booby-trapped his apartment with homemade napalm and multiple explosives and other incendiary devices. A very difficult fact to live with here is Holmes is just one of many in our society who leave death and destruction in their paths.

Issues surrounding this horrible event touch on several topics and can take us in as many directions. Since we in the Denver metro area are living with daily updates on this case, I want to talk about “insanity.”

A definition from Cornell Law:
“A person accused of a crime can acknowledge that they committed the crime, but argue that they are not responsible for it because of their mental illness, by pleading “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

I don’t know if there is a more deplorable statement on our 21st century American culture. The mere words “not responsible” make me nauseous. Here we have a grown man with the mental capacity to go to college, hold a job, and complete time-consuming tasks whose end requires sequential steps that build upon the previous – and we are told by Holmes’ defense team that their client doesn’t know right from wrong. The man planned the theater massacre for over two months. Can someone “snap” for that long?

Mrs. Cummings and I frequently debate such issues. She often takes the warmer-hearted position that no murderer is in his or her right mind during the act. Since we can’t see inside a murderer’s mind at that instant, I offered her the following perspective I heard from Dennis Prager (I quote him frequently, so you’re also welcome to roll your eyes).

Prager once said evil is not dark, as many call it. It’s actually bright — so bright that people have a difficult time looking at it. And when people can’t see evil for what it is, when someone commits a heinous act, society looks for any other reason for why it happened.
James Eagan Holmes is an evil man. Andrea Yates, who in 2001 drowned her five children, is an evil woman. Susan Smith, who in 1994 strapped her two sons into her car and let it roll below the surface of John D. Long Lake in South Carolina, is an evil woman.

Since murder is one of the harshest crimes and sins we can commit, these people deserve the harshest penalties each state allows. What does it say about us when we use tax dollars to provide food, shelter, medical care, and entertainment to murders for the rest of their lives – assuming they get life in prison. Will putting them to death bring back their victims or in any compensate for the loss? Anyone asking that question is not taking this subject seriously, but you know there are many who ask this. The point is not to make things even but punish the wrongdoing.

On the note of the death penalty, the subject of killing innocent people always surfaces. In answer to that, consider this: Death penalty proponents must accept the fact that an innocent person might be put to death. It can happen and while tragic, has to be part of a system that assesses harsh penalties for harsh crimes. On the other hand, opponents of the death penalty have a far greater burden to bear on their souls, which is the immense damage society would suffer through if the death penalty were abolished. If a criminal knows he or she can’t be given the greatest penalty for one of the greatest crimes, there is not much incentive to hold back.

If we can’t kill murderers who deserve it, let’s at least begin with changing the legal wording from “not guilty by reason of insanity” to “guilty and insane.” It’s a start.


Michael Cummings
Michael A. Cummings has a Bachelors in Business Management from St. John's University in Collegeville, MN, and a Masters in Rhetoric & Composition from Northern Arizona University. He has worked as a department store Loss Prevention Officer, bank auditor, textbook store manager, Chinese food delivery man, and technology salesman. Cummings wrote position pieces for the 2010 Trevor Drown for US Senate (AR) and 2012 Joe Coors for Congress (CO) campaigns.