Aurora Theater Trial: Schizophrenia Expert Says Holmes Was Insane

July 7, 2015
Photo: James Holmes sketch, facing right, Aurora theater shooting trial
A courtroom artist's sketch of James Holmes.

An expert on schizophrenia testified Tuesday that James Holmes was insane at the time of the Aurora theater shooting. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity for killing 12 people nearly three years ago.

University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Raquel Gur will likely be the final witness called by Holmes’ attorneys in the guilt phase of the trial. Her testimony is even more important to his case after a poor performance by one of the defense's previous psychiatric experts.

Here's a recap of her testimony Tuesday:

On how Gur concluded that Holmes was insane

The defense hired Gur for this case. She interviewed Holmes for 28 hours, more than any other psychiatric witness. An expert in schizophrenia, she told the jury she saw many of the classic symptoms of the disease in him, including his flat affect -- that he didn’t display any emotion. She pointed to Holmes' family history of schizophrenia and that he would freeze in social situations. She even examined scans of his brain -- which she said showed indications of the condition.

The importance of timing

Holmes' defense team needs to convince the jury that he was legally insane at the time of the theater attack, not just afterward. Gur said Holmes probably had his first psychotic break about six months before the shooting. She said he became driven by the delusion that he had to kill.

Here’s what she told the jury:

"The severe defect in his brain, in his mind rendered him not capable of distinguishing right from wrong by societal standards."

Gur testified that the Holmes' mental illness was so severe it overtook any reservations about the attack being legally or morally wrong, that people would get hurt, or that families of victims may suffer.

Trying to break connection between intelligence and sanity

The prosecution has repeatedly highlighted Holmes’ intelligence and the detailed planning that went into the attack. But Gur said intelligence has little to do with schizophrenia, other than that it can amplify the bizarre nature of delusions. She compared Holmes to Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, whom she has also examined. Both men, she said, have high intellects and high delusions to match. Gur said the planning that went into the theater shooting was a logical step in a delusional, mentally diseased brain. In his mind, Holmes had a mission to kill lots of people. In her view, he truly believed, and still believes, he would gain points of self worth by killing.

Up next: cross examination

District Attorney George Brauchler pummeled the defense's last psychiatric expert over his qualifications and methods and it seems clear Brauchler will do anything he can trip up Gur and make the jurors question her expertise and judgment. His first exchanges with Gur Tuesday afternoon swiftly became testy. Once Brauchler finishes that cross examination and the defense rests, his side will be able to put on a short rebuttal the defense’s whole case. Closing arguments in the trial are tentatively scheduled for Monday. If jurors find Holmes guilty, there will be a lengthy -- several weeks long -- sentencing phase to determine whether he should be put to death or serve life without parole.