Another Reason To Oppose The Death Penalty

In Colorado, James Holmes has been convicted of multiple counts of capital murder.  He’s the bug-eyed killer who burst into a crowded movie theater in 2012, threw tear gas, then started shooting, killing 12 people and wounding 70.  The carnage he caused has been recounted, with lasting horror, by some of the survivors at his trial.

But now we are hearing emotional testimony from James Holmes’ mother.  She says she thought she had a “good kid” who was self-sufficient and responsible, although she was saddened and guilty that he was “losing his joy” as he grew into adulthood.  She says she never knew that her son was so mentally ill that he was capable of random mass murder.  And other family members, teachers, and friends have testified about Holmes being a happy boy, a “Renaissance child,” and a nerdy teenager.

It’s all part of the “mitigation phase” of the trial, where the jury will decide whether Holmes should receive the death penalty for his appalling crimes.  His lawyers want the jury to feel sorry for him and his family and to conclude that the shootings didn’t occur because Holmes was intrinsically evil, but because he was mentally “sick.”  And so the jury has been listening to witness after witness testify about Holmes in a way designed to encourage jurors to show mercy — even though he didn’t show mercy to those innocents he gunned down.

I’m opposed to the death penalty on principle, so I don’t need to be convinced that Holmes should receive life in prison.  However, I think this phase of the Holmes trial aptly illustrates another reason why the death penalty should be abolished.  It is simply unfair to put the families of the victims through a process where they have to hear that the person who ruthlessly killed their loved ones was once an outgoing “Renaissance child” or an uncoordinated teenage nerd, and it is unseemly to call his Mom and Dad to the stand to shed a few tears to try to save their little boy’s skin.

A process that is designed to curry sympathy for the killer, by recalling his boyhood and moments where he laughed or cried or kicked a soccer ball, is senseless and offensive because whatever his meager childhood accomplishments may have been shrivel to nothingness against the magnitude of his adult crimes.  Don’t try to make me feel sorry for James Holmes.  I feel sorry for the victims and their families for the loss that Holmes inflicted.  Lock him away, and be done with it.

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The Aurora, Colorado Massacre And The Psychiatrist-Patient Privilege — An Update

Prosecutors responsible for the case against James Holmes — the man charged with the massacre at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado — have decided to drop their effort to see a notebook Holmes allegedly mailed to a psychiatrist.

If the prosecutors had pursued a forced disclosure of the notebook, the case would have tested the application of the psychiatrist-patient privilege.  Prosecutors decided to avoid the delay that would result from such a fight and worked out an arrangement with the defense team instead.  Under the agreement, the defense will be allowed to review the notebook under circumstances that will ensure no potential evidence will be destroyed.  Then, if Holmes’ defense team raises his mental health during the trial, prosecutors will be able to review the notebook.

It would have been interesting to see how the privilege issue was resolved in a contested setting, but prosecutors should be presumed to know their case — and often an agreement is the best way to advance the ball.  If prosecutors can make their case without the notebook, let’s move forward to a speedy trial, to learn what really happened in that Aurora, Colorado movie theater.

The Dark Knight Rises, In IMAX

Yesterday Kish and I went to see The Dark Knight Rises, in IMAX, at the Easton AMC Cinemas.

First, about IMAX:  I frankly don’t think it’s worth the extra money for standard Hollywood fare.  Before yesterday, the only IMAX movies I’d seen were nature-type movies about hiking on mountains or rafting through the Grand Canyon — movies where the spectacular scenery, on the huge screens, made for an overwhelmingly memorable experience.  Action-movie footage of Gotham City, car chases, and hand-to-hand combat just don’t have the same impact, no matter how loud the explosions might be.  IMAX gives you a bigger screen in a bigger theater, but I wasn’t able to appreciate any other material differences from your normal movie experience.

As for The Dark Knight Rises, the film is very, very long.  It has the standard elements of a seemingly indestructible, unbeatable villain and a plot that places Gotham City in mortal peril yet again, thereby allowing Batman and his comrades to show their superhero stuff.  Batman suffers mightily, as he always does, and speaks with that annoying growl when he wears his suit, and gets to use some new high-tech gadgets in the Battle Against Bane.

It’s a perfectly acceptable end to the Dark Knight trilogy, as characters and scenes from the prior two Dark Knight films make appearances.  Christian Bale has the Batman and Bruce Wayne characters down cold, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman play their enjoyable supporting roles well, and Gary Oldman is steady and unflappable as Commissioner Gordon.  My favorite characters were Anne Hathaway, as an untrustworthy cat burglar thief turned ally, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cop trying to deal with the carnage.  It’s rare that you appreciate acting — as opposed to action — in a film like this, but Hathaway’s performance broke through the explosions and fistfights.  And I think Gordon-Levitt makes a very convincing, and believable, action movie hero.

All of that said, I found it impossible to watch the movie without thinking of the subtext now put on the film by the Aurora, Colorado shootings.  The Dark Knight Rises is a dark, violent movie where innocent people going about their business get shot and killed by masked bad guys.  How can you watch Bane’s crew kill people at the Gotham Stock Exchange, for example, without thinking of the people at the midnight show when James Holmes burst in and began firing?  For me and probably for many people, the grisly backdrop of the shootings make it impossible to enjoy the movie as it was intended — as escapist, superhero fare.

The Aurora, Colorado Massacre And The Psychiatrist-Patient Privilege

Should the communications between a psychiatrist and her patient be privileged from disclosure to others, and are there instances when the psychiatrist should be obligated to report a potentially violent patient to the authorities?

The issue has arisen because news has leaked that James Holmes, the accused shooter in the Aurora, Colorado The Dark Knight Rises massacre, was seeing a psychiatrist.  It is reported that Holmes sent the psychiatrist, who is employed by the University of Colorado where Holmes had been a neuroscience student, a package of information that supposedly included a notebook that described a massacre.  Authorities seized a copy of the package, and Holmes’ defense lawyers are arguing that it should not be disclosed because it is a confidential communication between a patient and his psychotherapist.

Psychiatrist-patient communications are generally viewed as privileged, protected from disclosure, and not admissible as evidence in a trial.  The concept underlying the privilege is that we want psychiatric patients to be honest about their thoughts and impulses so they can be effectively treated; the argument is that if patient communications are routinely disclosed, patients will not be forthcoming when they talk to their psychiatrists and their treatment will suffer as a result.

However, the precise contours of the privilege are not clear, and even experts disagree about how it applies in specific circumstances.  It is generally accepted that if a patient communication contains a clear threat about committing an imminent violent act against the patient or others, the psychiatrist should alert the authorities.  But what is a clear threat of imminent action, as opposed to the delusional rantings of a disturbed individual who is undergoing treatment?  And if the communication is about past bad acts, should it always be privileged — even if it might help police solve crimes?

Horrible events like the Aurora shootings often produce unpredictable fallout that can touch and change different areas of the law.  In this case, one unexpected focus of attention might be the rules applicable to psychiatrists and their obligations to report the violent ravings of their patients.

Why No Pictures?

A Colorado judge has ruled that the media won’t be able to take pictures of James Holmes, the man accused of gunning down innocent moviegoers at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado last week, when Holmes appears for a hearing in his criminal case next week.

The judge denied the media’s request for expanded coverage and instead ruled that cameras will be barred from the hearing at which Holmes, who is accused of killing 12 people and wounding another 58 in a carefully premeditated, unprovoked attack, will be formally charged with his crimes.  His lawyers had objected to the media’s request.  Some of the families of the victims also objected to the media printing Holmes’ name and photo.

I respect the wishes of the victims and their families, but I disagree with them.  Holmes will be charged with horrific crimes — crimes that have shaken and touched the nation.  He will be tried in a public forum, in a proceeding that naturally is of intense interest to the people of Colorado specifically and the American people generally.  Why shouldn’t the media be able to discreetly take photos of the hearing, given the long-established right of public access to criminal proceedings?

No one is advocating that the news media be allowed to convert the proceedings into a circus, but the days of the Sam Sheppard case are long since over, and many criminal trials have been broadcast in recent years without disturbing the dignity and solemnity of criminal proceedings.  The judge in this case should follow those examples.  Americans have a right to see Holmes as he confronts his accusers and deals with the consequences of the terrible actions for which he stands accused.

Failing To Make Sense Of The Senseless

When something awful happens, like yesterday’s horrific shooting at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, our natural tendency is to try to explain how it could have happened.

We want to know what would motivate a young man to engage in such brutal, inhuman behavior.  What made him decide to charge into a movie theater and terrorize and kill complete strangers who were excited to be among the first to see the latest summer blockbuster?  When and why did he run off the rails of normal thought and conduct?  Could — and should — anyone have seen warning signs that might have prevented the senseless loss of so many lives?  Should the laws be changed to try to prevent this from happening again?

I can understand this impulse, but I also think such efforts are doomed to failure.  Has anyone successfully explained how Nazi Germany or Jonestown could possibly have happened?  The unfortunate reality is that there is evil and insanity in the world, and when they come together terrible things can happen.  We’ve endured countless mass shootings, stabbings, bombings, and suicides, in this country and in others, by people who are acting out of impulses as disparate as a lust for power, religious zealotry, a desire to be famous, racial and tribal hatred, and a hunger for revenge.  Some people just lose their marbles and lose their moral moorings.

This is not a comfortable conclusion, unless you’re a hermit.  If you want to participate in society, you just have to grit your teeth and accept the fact that the guy sitting next to you in the movie theater, or the sports stadium, or the school cafeteria, might be one of those people whose existence and outlook can’t be rationally explained.