Prosecutor, Key Psychiatric Witness Spar Again At Theater Shooting Trial

July 9, 2015

The defense is set to rest its case Friday in the Aurora theater shooting trial, after a final week of testimony dominated by a key psychiatric witness.

Dr. Raquel Gur has testified that James Holmes was legally insane when he shot and killed 12 people at a midnight premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises" three years ago. 

Her assessment is key because the outcome of this trial hangs on whether the jury believes Holmes was legally insane during the attack.

At one point this week, Holmes’ attorney, Dan King, asked Gur a question that might be on the minds of some jurors: How could someone who is so mentally ill carry out such a complex and deadly attack?  Gur replied that the buying of guns and all the planning served his larger delusion, his irrational mission: to attack the theater.

"I do not believe that without the delusion and without being mentally ill that this would have ever happened," said Gur, who directs the Schizophrenia Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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.

She said she stakes her professional reputation on her testimony. So it’s not surprising that District Attorney George Brauchler aggressively attacked Gur’s assessment on cross examination.  At one point he mocked the brevity of her written report -- just 14 pages, and light on details.

"If the purpose of the report is simply to signal to other people, 'I analysed everything, I talked about everything, he’s schizophrenic,' why not just send in a post card?"

Gur replied that relatively short reports are common in the clinical settings where she works.

But Brauchler noted that other forensic psychiatric experts who testified at the trial turned in voluminous reports on sanity -- much more appropriate, he says, for a trial of this magnitude.  Gur, though, is not a foresnsic psychiatrist.

Few people know this case better than Brauchler. And he routinely tripped up Gur by quizzing her on little details of the case.  Here's a heated exchange about why Gur couldn’t recall the name of one of Holmes’ fellow graduate students.

"I don’t see the relevance of it," Gur said.

"I bet," Brauchler replied.

Defense lawyer Daniel King interjected at this point, saying, "Judge, I’m going to object to commentary as argumentative." 

Judge Carlos Samour replied, "Sustained, but also the statement by the witness that she doesn’t see the relevance is improper as well. Next question."

"The details are important, aren’t they?" Brauchler continued.

"It depends for what," Gur replied.

In fact, much of Brauchler’s cross examination of Gur was testy.  On Wednesday, he highlighted two separate quotes from Holmes that Gur accidentally merged into one.

"Are there other places in your report that you can think of, where you took that kind of editorial liberty, and combined answers into one quote to express what you thought was the gist of what he was saying?" Brauchler asked her.

After the judge in the case overruled a defense objection, Gur replied: "I can’t recall things like that."

Former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman says Brauchler was wound up, and got close to crossing the line.

"You always have to worry as a prosecutor that some juror will feel you were too harsh or disrespectful and hold it against you when you go after an expert really hard," Silverman said, but he reminded that only one juror needs to believe Holmes was insane to prompt a mistrial.  

The defense expects to rest its case Friday. Then Brauchler and the prosecution will put on a short rebuttal case.  They plan to call yet another psychiatric expert.  And closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday.

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