The horrendous and tragic details of what occurred in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater on July 20 have been well documented over the past week (for a review, please see the following link: http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/20/us/colorado-theater-shooting/index.html). Unfortunately, the aftermath of this atrocity will lead to a surplus of social and legal questions that the public and pundits alike will debate. What are some of the political issues that have already emerged? And, what can we expect from the criminal proceedings in the coming months?
At the center of the issues stemming from this incident will be whether such a tragedy could have been prevented with stronger gun control laws. It has been noted that during the attack the suspect, James Holmes, used an assault rifle, tactical shotgun, two handguns, and had purchased over six thousand rounds of ammunition prior to the attack. Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg has already challenged both President Obama and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to put the gun control debate at the forefront of their campaign agenda, calling for greater gun regulation. In response to such challenges, both President Obama and Mitt Romney have made statements in support of the Second Amendment right to bear arms while also calling for a re-examination of current gun laws. With both candidates careful to enter the fray on such a politicized issue, the question is, at what point will lawmakers seriously revisit gun regulation? As several pundits have highlighted in the wake of this tragedy, if attacks like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Aurora, do not force lawmakers to discuss more stringent gun regulation, what will? Even those that support the Second Amendment argue that it has reasonable limits. However, others are quick to point out that this is not a Second Amendment issue, but is in actuality an issue relating to the sale of assault weapons. Regardless, it will be interesting to see if the Aurora shootings lead to an actual debate on gun policy leading to the November election and beyond.
While the gun debate will certainly be a drawn-out affair, the criminal proceedings against the suspect have already begun. On Monday, July 23, the suspect made his first court appearance in an Arapahoe County courtroom, aided by two public defenders. While this initial appearance was a bond hearing, where the court determined that the suspect would be held without the ability to be released while charges were pending, the suspect’s behavior has drawn nationwide attention and spurred furious debate at the intersection of law and psychiatry. During his hearing the suspect stared wide-eyed into space as well as closed his eyes while appearing to nod off. Immediately following the suspect’s initial court appearance, the media zeroed in on the suspect’s mental status and how such actions would affect his competency to stand trial. While some argue the suspect was exhibiting possible side-effects of psychotropic medications or the true effects of a psychotic breakdown others argue––citing to the suspect’s deliberative actions in planning the attack––that the suspect’s behavior is nothing more than a façade in preparation for a mental insanity defense. Regardless of one’s position, it seems evident that lengthy competency proceedings are to follow.
While the states’ requirements for competency do vary in some respects, the general guidelines were outlined in the Supreme Court’s decision in Dusky v. United States (1960). In Dusky, the Court held that that a defendant has the right to a competency evaluation prior to proceeding to trial. In addition, the Court defined competence to proceed to trial as the defendant’s ability to have a rational and factual understanding of the charges brought against him, as well as having the ability to rationally consult with counsel and aid in his own defense. Colorado’s standard is very true to the language in Dusky and it will be interesting to see how both the prosecution and defense approach the competency issue in the coming weeks.
Lastly, do to the strong evidence of pre-meditation and the magnitude of the suspect’s acts, many are calling for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Currently, Colorado has only three inmates on death row and has not executed a prisoner since 1977. Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers, who has sought the death penalty in six cases in her career, has stated that she will make a decision regarding the death penalty in the coming months after consulting with victims and their families. That decision must be made within sixty days of the suspect’s arraignment, which is expected some time in the next week. Clearly, if prosecutors do seek the death penalty, the tension between the suspect’s competency and the use of the death penalty will take center stage in pre-trial proceedings. As the use of the death penalty is one of the most polarizing issues within the country, expect both an outpouring of opinions from both sides of the argument in the coming weeks.
The Criminal Law Brief Blog will be updating our readers on this tragedy and the subsequent legal issues as developments unfold.
Senior Blog Editor, Criminal Law Brief