Residents of New Jersey may be aware that James Holmes' prosecutors are seeking the death penalty while his defense attorneys are fighting for his life through a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. In other words, they are claiming he did not know that what he was doing was wrong when he started shooting people at a Colorado movie theater in 2012. Prosecutors showed jurors photographs and obtained witness testimony while the defense tried to keep the focus on Holmes' state of mind when he committed the murders.
If the defense is successful, Holmes will be found not guilty by reason of insanity, which means he will then be sent to a mental health facility where he could remain for his entire life. In the event that the defense fails, Holmes will likely be sent to death row instead.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that more than 60 percent of state prison inmates who have committed violent crimes have some type of mental health problem, and of those inmates, approximately 20 percent show symptoms of serious mental illness. Another 15 percent exhibit psychotic disorder signs. However, the defense in this case is that the defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity. This is not the same as 'not guilty by reason of mental illness." Mental illness alone is not enough for the insanity defense to be effective.
In cases involving violent crimes, a criminal defense attorney may choose to argue that a defendant was not in a state of mind to be culpable for his or her actions at the time of the crime. Although the defense of insanity is not often successful, it may be a strategy to be pursued when the evidence against the defendant is strong.