A psychiatrist who spent hours talking with mass murderer James Holmes says that what led Holmes to open fire in a crowded Colorado movie theater was a one-of-a-kind vortex of his mental illness, his personality and his circumstances — and some other, unknown currents that will probably never be uncovered.
“A big part of it is, it’s hidden in Holmes’ mind, and he can’t see it either,” William H. Reid said in an interview with The Associated Press about his new book, “A Dark Night in Aurora: Inside James Holmes and the Colorado Mass Shootings.”
Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 58 when he opened fire during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” a Batman movie, in the Denver suburb of Aurora on July 20, 2012. Twelve other people were injured in the scramble to escape.
He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Reid was one of two court-appointed psychiatrists who evaluated Holmes’ mental health before the trial. Reid spent a total of 24 hours interviewing Holmes in July and August 2014, two years after the massacre. Reid also reviewed 80,000 to 85,000 pages of documents provided by prosecutors, the defense and law enforcement.
In the book, Reid acknowledges that readers will want to know what led Holmes to commit mass murder, and he predicts they won’t be happy with his conclusion.
“The answer — and this really is the answer, but it’s not very satisfying — lies in an unimaginably detailed and complex confluence that we can’t replicate because we can’t see all of it,” he writes.
In his interview with the AP, Reid listed the factors that can be seen:
- Holmes’ mental illness, and the way it influenced his behavior.
- The way Holmes’ personality shaped his awkward interactions with other people and influenced his view of the world.
- The ups and downs of Holmes’ life as he struggled in neuroscience graduate school at the University of Colorado in Denver and broke up with his girlfriend.
The other factors are unknown, Reid said, “because no one knows his entire social and genetic and biological life.”
Reid said society will likely never have a comprehensive understanding of what led Holmes to commit murder.
“He’s unique,” Reid said. “The answers are not going to come, at least not in any of our lifetimes.”
Reid’s book is a chronology of Holmes’ life, from his relatively uneventful childhood through the murders, the trial and Holmes’ conviction and sentencing. Reid said he relied on the court records, including his videotaped interviews with Holmes, which were shown to jurors during the trial.
The book includes a handful of previously unknown facts, the most startling of which is that Holmes suggested to Reid in one of their videotaped interviews that he might kill again if given a chance.
Reid asked Holmes if jail guards should be worried about that, and Holmes replied, “Um, I’d say so, yeah.”
That exchange wasn’t shown to the jury because the defense said it could be prejudicial, and the judge agreed, Reid wrote. But Reid told the AP he doubted Holmes was a serious threat to other prisoners.
The book also offers a glimpse of the extraordinary steps that state District Judge Carlos Samour — now a Colorado Supreme Court justice — took to prevent pretrial leaks. Emails involving the case were encrypted, and some documents were delivered to Reid in person, instead of by mail or parcel service.
The book knocks down a half-dozen stories that circulated around the case. Among Reid’s assertions: Holmes didn’t identify with the Joker figure in the Batman movies, his breakup with his girlfriend alone didn’t provoke the killings, and there’s no evidence his prescribed use of Zoloft was a factor in the crime.
The book makes a point of absolving Holmes’ parents. Reid’s dedication names the 12 slain victims as well as “Holmes’ parents, Arlene and Robert, who did nothing wrong.”
“I looked really carefully at all the evidence that I had,” Reid told the AP. “I just couldn’t find anything wrong with their parenting.”
Reid told the AP he thought “long and hard” about whether it was legal and ethical for him to write the book but concluded that his sources were publicly available and that he had no doctor-patient relationship with Holmes, so he had no obligation of confidentiality — his role was to evaluate Holmes’ mental health, not treat him.
Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego, agreed that Reid did not have a doctor-patient relationship with Holmes.
Meloy said Reid’s book could provide mental health professionals and the public with a better understanding of Holmes’ case. Meloy didn’t work with Reid on this case but has collaborated with him on at least one other in the past.
Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but Reid and the other court-appointed psychiatrist, Jeffrey L. Metzner, concluded he didn’t meet Colorado’s standard for insanity.
Reid and Metzner both said Holmes was mentally ill at the time of the killings — Metzner diagnosed schizoaffective disorder, a severe form of schizophrenia, and Reid found schizotypal personality, a related but less severe disorder. But both said that despite his illness, Holmes knew his elaborately planned ambush was illegal and morally wrong, and that he could still form criminal intent, all of which meant he was sane under state law.
The book ends with a plea to make mental health a part of everyday health care rather than focusing only on crisis intervention. But in the book and the interview, Reid said it’s better to rely on good policing than psychiatry to prevent a repeat of the theater massacre, noting that mentally ill people are rarely violent.
“Figuring out James Holmes would probably not give us any reasonable predictive tools to say, ‘OK, if we find all of these 4 million characteristics in someone else, we’re going to put a brand on their forehead and watch them closely,’” he told the AP. “It’s not feasible.”