Real Crime

The Aurora Theater Shooter: Insights from a Psychiatrist Who Interviewed Mass Murderer James Holmes

James E. Holmes Aurora Colorado Theater Shooter
James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court on July 23, 2012, in Centennial, Colorado. Holmes was the gunman in a mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, that killed 12 and injured dozens of others. He was sentenced to 12 life sentences and 3,318 additional years in prison for the mass murder. Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images
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    The Aurora Theater Shooter: Insights from a Psychiatrist Who Interviewed Mass Murderer James Holmes

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      Rachel Bozek

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      The Aurora Theater Shooter: Insights from a Psychiatrist Who Interviewed Mass Murderer James Holmes

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      July 11, 2020

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      A+E Networks

Six years ago, on July 20, 2012, 12 people were killed and dozens more injured at a midnight showing of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, when James Holmes opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado, theater. At the time, the incident produced the largest number of casualties from one shooting on American soil. Holmes, 24 at the time of the shooting, was ultimately sentenced to 12 life sentences and 3,318 additional years in prison for the mass murder.

 Before the trial, forensic psychiatrist Dr. William H. Reid spent months reviewing more than 80,000 pages of documentation about the case, in addition to participating in nine interviews with Holmes. Reid is the only person who was allowed to conduct recorded interviews with Holmes during his trial.

A&E Real Crime spoke with Reid, who wrote the new book, A Dark Night in Aurora: Inside James Holmes and the Colorado Theater Shootings, about his experience on this case and why he felt it was important to share it with the world. 

When you were approached to work with James Holmes, how much did you know about the case?
There had been a previous judge’s expert—not for either side—to evaluate things from a psychiatric viewpoint, who’s a good friend of mine. When they initially contacted me, I didn’t [have] any preconceived notions. They were interested in a psychiatric consultation [of Holmes] for the judge. 

Why did you decide to do it?
I would not want to say it’s up my alley and it’s what I do all the time. That’s just not true. Most people like me work, to some extent, with cases involving violent criminality—whether or not there’s a psychiatric aspect to them. That’s how I approached it.

Did you go into the situation with any preconceived notions about Holmes?
I really think I was pretty darned open-minded as I went in. Good and ethical forensic professionals, psychiatrists and psychologists, are not advocates for either side. We try hard to see what the truth is, what the real facts are. Then the lawyers or the court or the jury take that and make their decision.

I did not know that Mr. Holmes had any psychiatric history, except there was an insanity defense and other psychiatrists had been involved, [which] implies a psychiatric issue. Mental illness—even serious mental illness—in a defendant does not [necessarily] mean lack of criminal responsibility. And the legal question of insanity involves mental conditions, but does not equate psychiatric diagnosis with lack of responsibility.

So your interviews with Holmes weren’t to find out whether or not he did it?
Correct. Ethical forensic professionals, in this case, a psychiatrist, are not so-called hired guns—or as one book title put it, ‘whores of the court’—to sway a jury one way or another. Knowing Holmes had killed people and shot folks at the theater, my task was to assess what role, if any, some mental illness or mental disorder had in that.

The primary thing to be objective about was whether or not, at the time of the event—and just before—he understood and appreciated right from wrong, and understood both the legal and the societal version of right from wrong. As I went into that, I certainly had no conscious, preconceived notion [of whether] he could or couldn’t distinguish right from wrong, to appreciate the consequences.

How does mental-health awareness pertain to this case and other cases like this?
Mental-health awareness, in the public, is very important to me. It’s very important for society and for patients and families. It is not extremely important in preventing situations such as the Holmes shooting. The vast majority of people with diagnosed mental illness are simply not violent and should not be a worry for anybody with regard to violence or sudden violence. The exceptions are primarily in the area of substance abuse or the mixture of certain kinds of substance abuse and mental illness.

I am far more worried about people who are looking for money for their next fix, or drunk drivers on the road, than I am about any category of mentally ill people. That does not mean that some mentally ill people are not more dangerous than the general population. It means the general population is more dangerous than the population of people with mental illness. If someone has indicated some level of danger, then it’s [senseless] not to do something about that.

How did this pertain to Holmes?
In Holmes’s case, no one except a couple of friends and his psychiatrists and social worker heard anything about [him wanting to] hurt anybody. People say things [about being violent] all the time, whether they’re mentally ill or not.

With regard to the psychiatrists, some [members] of the public jumped on them [for not flagging Holmes as a danger before the shooting]. I looked at that as carefully as I could and I talked with both psychiatrists and the social worker. Their hands were tied by their ethics and—more importantly—the law. They could not involuntarily hospitalize him. And [Holmes] planned that. He didn’t tell them enough to allow that. The civil court has dismissed any reasonable blame of those folks.

In the book, you describe how Holmes told them just enough to not say too much. He understood how far he could go in talking about what was on his mind.
He’s an extremely bright guy. A part of him clearly did not want to do this, for most of the time up to the shootings—right up to the shootings themselves. But the other part of his mind, in his words, ‘overruled’ that. [But] he’s still responsible for shooting the people in my opinion, and in the jury’s opinion.

He purchased all of the weapons and ammunition he used legally. How much of a factor was his access to all of this weaponry in carrying out this crime?
Nobody can say what would have happened if some element had changed before the shootings. [But] his writing and his statements indicate he chose shooting, and he chose the theater, because they were his best options to carry out his tragic mission. Had those two things not been available, either the guns or the theater, there is considerable indication he would have found other options. He was thinking about ways to kill lots of people, not ways to shoot lots of people.

What surprised you about Holmes during your time with him?
It was a little surprising that he was very forthcoming about pretty much everything I asked about. I did not get the impression that he was hiding things when he talked with me.

This is a small thing, but the pupils in his eyes were markedly dilated much of the time [during our interviews]. I can’t attach that to anything important, but it was really unusual, particularly because he didn’t say, ‘Gee, these lights are bright,’ the way you or I would if our eyes are dilated when we go to the eye doctor.

It was also a little surprising he said he preferred his jail cell to the much more pleasant surroundings of the state psychiatric hospital in Pueblo, Colorado. That setting was luxurious and lenient in the sense that he could walk around a lot more, there were more people around him. The only thing he liked about the hospital better than the jail, he told me, was the food was better.

And it was quite surprising in the two blue squares on the wall of his cell, where he was allowed to tape photographs, there were none or almost none of his family, and a couple of dozen of girls and women who sent him pictures.

Another thing that was a little surprising, and this has to do with his disordered way of viewing society and viewing himself in society, and denying—in a psychological way, not in a legal way—how society views what he did: When asked about [why he hadn’t heard from his friends], he said things like, ‘Well they probably went on with their lives.’ He didn’t instantly realize, and say, ‘They didn’t write to me because I killed a bunch of people.’ For him, and people like him, keeping [away] feelings of any kind–especially feelings related to loss—from consciousness, is really important.

Are there any generalizations you think hold true about most mass shooters?
Number one, it is quite rare. Number two, it is not limited to the United States, although some people talk about the U.S. being dangerous. Number three, there is no psychological generalization about all mass shooters or mass killers. Some are quite mentally ill. Some are simply terrorists—domestic or international. Some are criminal.

[Regarding], the rarity of it, some people—I’ll call them a little bit psychologically vulnerable—become nervous about going to a theater, getting on a subway or standing on a subway platform. That’s an unfortunate thing that the media’s portrayal, and social media’s echo chamber, plays right into. And it’s a destructive thing. I don’t know that it’s something we can stop—but it’s unnecessary for folks to be this afraid.

What did you think of  Holmes’ sentence?
I thought it was fair. The jury clearly did its job. That was a hard job for a jury. The paperwork alone is necessary, but ridiculously hard.

The eventual prison sentence, which was enormous, was a little surprising. It was not over the top given the situation, but it was sensational, in a sense.

None of the judge’s experts believed he was insane at the time, [so] in a legal sense, it was not surprising that the jury found him guilty [rather] than not guilty by reason of insanity.

Why did you think it was important to write this book?
In [my] field, the last thing we want to be is sensational or the TV psychiatrist or the pop psychiatrist. It hurts our credibility, it hurts our reputation as objective and scientific.

I [wanted] to share what I think are relatively objective facts and knowledge about the case.

What was the experience of writing this book like for you?
I got pretty affected by the enormity of what was done to people. People who were killed, people who were wounded, people who are now disabled, people who were in the theater and experienced the trauma without being physically hurt, people in Colorado, people in society, law enforcement, first responders. I’ve written or edited some 17 books, but when this was put to bed, the relief was greater than any of the others.

In late June 2018, Judge Carlos Samour, who presided over the 2015 trial, ordered notes and reports from three psychiatrists—Dr. Lynne Fenton, who treated Holmes prior to the shooting; Dr. Jeffrey L. Metzner, who evaluated Holmes following the shooting; and Dr. Reid, who evaluated Holmes after Metzner did so—to be unsealed and made available to the public, at the request of The Denver Post.

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