The insanity of the death penalty (column) |

The insanity of the death penalty (column)

The biggest jury pool in history has been summoned in the case of the man who admits he shot dead 12 people and wounded 70 in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

Whenever it is that 12 untainted jurors can be seated — among the 9,000 summoned — to try James Holmes, they should do us a service and stay seated for the trial of Homer Caster.

Both Holmes and Caster have the same case to make: severe mental impairment. Caster’s defense will be easier, and we should ask why.

Holmes will claim insanity, a fact which seems as clear as his orange-dyed hair and glazed eyes the night he shot up the packed Century 16 Theater.

Caster? He’s 87. He has Alzheimer’s disease. Denver police say he went into a rage and killed a fellow Alzheimer’s patient in a care facility.

I have no power of prophecy, but let me predict: Caster won’t face the death penalty. His trial won’t have dueling experts sparring about his state of mind. The testimony of one physician — his — will satisfy both prosecution and defense.

Now, please tell the court why a man who loses his mind to dementia has no control over his actions but one who loses it to schizophrenia does.

Submitted: Reason No. 1 why the death penalty is insane.

Sorry, but if I were Juror Summons No. 9,001 in the Aurora case, I’d be bounced in 40 words or fewer: No, your honor, I don’t support the death penalty, largely because I support the insanity defense, a concept that effectively has been laid to waste in this nation. Without it, capital punishment isn’t about justice so much as it about primeval indulgences.

If ever actions sang out “psychosis,” it was those of a college scholar — young James Holmes — who weeks before his rampage alternately made online purchases of nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition (God bless America) and visited University of Colorado campus psychologist who specializes in schizophrenia.

And yet, whenever this trial happens, we await the prosecution’s summoning someone like Dr. Randall Price, the Dallas psychologist who testified that tormented Iraqi veteran Eddie Ray Routh was not insane when he killed “American Sniper” Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield when the two took Routh to a Texas gun range to help him sort out quite obvious emotional problems.

Routh wasn’t insane, no, said Price. He had a “paranoid disorder.” And alcohol and marijuana had combined to cause a “cannabis-induced psychosis.”

Prosecutors in the Routh case chose not to seek the death penalty. Routh wasn’t sentenced to a psychiatric lockup, however. He was sent to prison for life.

In Colorado, the Aurora theater killer may evade death by virtue of an insanity plea. But let’s face it. Such trials are nothing but a dice roll, games played by dueling doctors. The result: wholly disparate treatment of the equally addled.

In 1976 the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, in part because of uneven application among the races. It clearly could do the same based on the beyond-impossible odds of applying the insanity defense in most states.

This legal conundrum aside, it is always curious to see the fealty pledged by so-called conservatives to our criminal justice system when their mantra for all else (war also excepted) is, “Government can’t do a danged thing right.”

The Innocence Project has demonstrated how wrong the assumptions can be. What do 325 criminal exonerations based on DNA evidence, 19 on death row, say to you?

No, your honor. I don’t object to the death penalty on a monk’s grounds, conscientious grounds. A brain tumor likely made University of Texas clock tower sniper Charles Whitman a madman, but I’m glad police took him down. That saved lives.

However, when one is tried for murder and insanity is no defense, the death penalty is psychosis itself.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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