Prosecutors have rebuffed an offer by James E. Holmes, the accused killer of 12 people in a movie theater rampage in Aurora, Colo., last year, to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison. In deciding instead to seek the death penalty, the district attorney is ignoring significant indications that Holmes was deranged when he allegedly committed his crimes. Equally troubling, the D.A. said he reached his decision after speaking to families of victims.
This editorial page opposes capital punishment in all circumstances. But even those who support the death penalty should want to confine it to cases in which the defendant is clearly responsible for his actions and not in the grip of a serious mental illness. Holmes doesn't meet that standard. Among other things, the troubled graduate student told a University of Colorado psychiatrist a month before the shootings that he was having homicidal thoughts that the psychiatrist apparently feared he couldn't control.
Holmes' attorneys can still offer an insanity defense, which is more robust in Colorado than in other states. For example, the prosecution would have to prove the defendant was sane and knew right from wrong, rather than the defendant having to prove he suffered from mental illness. The defendant can also argue that his disease created an "irresistible impulse" that led him to commit a crime. But jurors are often unreceptive to insanity pleas.