Why James Holmes May Be Anders Breivik on American Soil

While Colorado theater shooter James Holmes reportedly said something to the effect that he was the embodiment of the “Joker” villain from the Batman comics and movies, from my perspective as a forensic psychologist and attorney who’s been involved in the media coverage of most mass-murder cases in the past decade, Holmes is more reminiscent of Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik in critical respects:

Their M.O.’s:  They both employed a combination of incendiary/explosive devices (although Holmes’ thankfully weren’t detonated as Breivik’s were) and firearms, using mostly the firearms to attack similar numbers of people (although Holmes thankfully was ultimately less lethal, which is certainly not to say that his victims’ and their families’ pain is any less).

Their Targets:  They both targeted people previously unknown to them (i.e. they didn’t act out of vengeance toward any specific person or group of people).

Their Mindsets:  They both are disaffected, solitary young men who spent considerable time engaging in what I call the “3 P’s” — planning, preparation, and practice — at relatively complex levels, patiently waiting until their plans were “perfected” and carefully concealing their intentions and activities right up until the commission of their crimes (and as in Breivik’s case, I’ll bet that people who’ve known Holmes will gradually come out of the woodwork and acknowledge having observed signs that he could become radical, even volatile, when his world/life didn’t work the way he thought it should).

Their Surrenders:  They both allowed themselves to be taken into custody alive when they could’ve fought police to the death.

These similarities between Holmes and Breivik are critical because they converge to suggest that Holmes is also like Breivik in another critical respect, the one about which everyone’s speculating:

Their Motives:  Like Breivik, I suspect we’ll learn that Holmes has a “cause” — or what he thinks is a “cause” — and that he deliberately and calculatedly employed mass murder as a means of obtaining a platform from which to articulate and advocate his “cause” (in Breivik’s case, it was multiculturalism in Europe; we don’t know what it is yet in Holmes’ case — doesn’t seem likely to be religious, but could be political, economic, cultural, or some combination).

These similarities between Holmes and Breivik are also critical because they portend potential similarities in their legal processes:

Their Competency to Stand Trial:  The complexity of the “3 P’s” in Holmes’ case suggests that he, like Breivik, is more than capable of rational thought at the relatively-low level required to establish competency to stand trial.

Their Aversion to a Competency Challenge:  If Holmes has a “cause,” as I suspect he does, then — again like Breivik — he may very well resist his own defense counsel’s efforts to challenge his competency to stand trial (because the trial is where he’ll get the public platform to air his views).

Their Criminal Responsibility:   Once again, the extent to which Holmes engaged in the “3 P’s” combined with active efforts to conceal his intentions suggest that while he may be clinically insane (diagnosed or diagnosable with a major mental illness), again like Breivik, he appears legally sane (e.g. even a floridly-psychotic schizophrenic can shoplift, or murder, intentionally) — the “3 P’s” indicate that Holmes and Brevik each knew precisely what he was doing and that his actions were legally wrong , and their active concealment of the “3 P’s” indicates that each man knew he’d likely have been stopped if the authorities had learned of his intentions, i.e. “consciousness of guilt” (and in Colorado, courts use something called the “irresistible impulse test” as evidence of legal insanity — whether the defendant was so compelled by mental illness that he/she would’ve committed the crime even right in front of a police officer — and it’s pretty clear that this defendant was able to put off committing the crime for months (while he discreetly engaged in the “3 P’s”).

Their Aversion to an Insanity Plea:  If Holmes has a “cause,” then, once again like Breivik, he may very well resist advice from his defense counsel to plead not guilty by reason of insanity (because any assertion, let alone adjudication, of his insanity would diminish what he sees as the validity of his “cause”) — in Colorado, however, a district judge can enter an insanity plea on behalf of a defendant over the defendant’s objection if the judge believes that justice requires it, and if an insanity plea is entered, it’s the prosecution’s burden to prove that the evidence does not establish legal insanity at the time of the crime).

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