Monday, 11 March 2013

Accused Colorado gunman could be medicated for psychiatric exams

Accused Colorado theater gunman James Holmes could be given "medically appropriate" drugs during psychiatric interviews and possibly face a polygraph test if he chooses to raise an insanity defense, the judge in the case said on Monday.

The ruling by Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester came a day before Holmes is scheduled to enter a plea in the case and over the objections of defense lawyers who have argued that Holmes should not be drugged while undergoing examinations by court-appointed psychiatrists.

Holmes, 25, is accused of multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder in the July shooting rampage that killed 12 moviegoers and wounded 58 others during the screening of a Batman movie in the Denver suburb of Aurora.

The Colorado tragedy stands as one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history and one that ranked briefly as the most lethal in 2012 - until 20 children and six adults were killed in December at a Connecticut elementary school.

It is widely assumed that Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado, will raise an insanity defense, as his public defenders have referenced their client's unspecified mental illness at earlier hearings.

Prosecutors have 60 days after Holmes enters a plea to decide whether to seek the death penalty. But in a sign that they might be considering such a move, Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said last month he was adding a death-penalty lawyer to the case.

Prosecutors have depicted Holmes as a young man whose once promising academic career was in tatters as he failed graduate school oral board exams in June and one of his professors suggested he may not have been a good fit for his doctorate program.

They have said that in the lead-up to the shooting, Holmes lost his access to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus after making unspecified threats to a professor on June 12, and then began a voluntary withdrawal from his program.

Sylvester, in court documents released on Monday, told Holmes that if he mounts an insanity defense, it would be "permissible to conduct a narcoanalytic interview of you with such drugs as are medically appropriate, and to subject you to polygraph examination."

Holmes' public defenders have objected, saying the use of statements compelled involuntarily from an interview while Holmes is medicated would violate due process.

They also argued that the use of a polygraph would be unconstitutional because such exams are not considered reliable in other contexts.


The exchange was the latest back and forth over the implications of a possible insanity defense, after Holmes' lawyers unsuccessfully sought last week to have the state's insanity-defense law declared unconstitutional on the self-incrimination grounds.

Defense attorneys also revealed in pleadings released last week that Holmes had spent several days in a psychiatric unit last November, "frequently in restraints" after jail officials believed he was a danger to himself.

That incident was separate from another event where Holmes was treated at a hospital for injuries "that resulted from potential self-inflicted head injuries in his cell," his attorneys said.

Colorado law says that a defendant who pleads not guilty by reason of insanity must cooperate with court-appointed psychiatrists, which defense lawyers have said could violate Holmes' right not to incriminate himself.

Former Colorado district attorney Bob Grant said case law was fairly settled that Colorado law allows a defendant who claims insanity to be medicated while undergoing court-ordered psychiatric examinations.

"What they (defense lawyers) are setting up is an appeal in federal court and possibly by the U.S. Supreme Court," said Grant, who said the issue was raised in two death penalty convictions he secured as a prosecutor.

Results of a polygraph exam, if one is conducted, can be used by evaluators to form an opinion on a defendant's sanity, he said.

Grant said it was possible that defense lawyers could ask on Tuesday for more time before entering a plea to analyze the judge's recent rulings. In that scenario, Sylvester could postpone the arraignment or he could enter a not guilty plea on Holmes' behalf if Holmes declines to make a plea.