Colorado movie massacre overshadows other stories

Over the weekend, several Wal-Mart stores here in Kansas and Missouri had to be closed temporarily due to bomb threats, a “father” (in the biological sense only) shot his two children (one died, one survived) before committing suicide in Massachusetts, and a man allegedly murdered his parents and kidnapped his 12-year-old adopted sister in Arkansas (he’s in custody), but those stories have been somewhat obscured by continuing coverage of the Colorado movie massacre.  With the suspect headed back to court in just hours for his arraignment, here’s a recap of weekend developments in the case:

As funerals were held for several of the victims, I noticed a predictable but often misguided tendency to want to spread blame starting to manifest itself among some observers in the media.  Here are three examples:

1) People were talking about whether or not the suspect’s school and/or psychiatrist should bear some blame for failing to discover a package outlining the suspect’s plans prior to the massacre.  Turns out, though, that the package containing the outline of the shooter’s plans apparently arrived at the school after the massacre (just as I predicted — I didn’t think he would’ve risked being stopped after all of that meticulous planning), was promptly delivered and opened, and authorities were promptly notified, so unless the suspect made similar statements in the past to school officials who took no action, a la Penn State, there’s no apparent reason to blame the school.

2) People were talking about whether medical first responders should bear some blame for arriving at the scene too late to save as many victims as could’ve been saved.  Again though, turns out that there’s not nearly enough evidence yet to substantiate an assertion that emergency medical personnel somehow dragged their feet en route to the scene.  My brother’s a firefighter and emergency medical first responder in Kansas, and I know with absolute certainty that if he ever arrived at an emergency later than somebody thought he should have, there would be an unavoidable reason.  First responders are generally extremely dedicated to saving lives, so it’s way too early to be spreading any blame in their direction in this case.  As others have pointed out, maybe they were stopping along the way to help wounded moviegoers fleeing the theater.

3) People were talking about whether the theater should bear some blame for not having security guards present.  While it’s apparently true that the theater didn’t have “security guards” on the scene, the “foreseeability” of the massacre would be key to any assertion that the absence of such guards was negligent.  Unless there’s evidence that the theater had received threats of mass murderous mayhem in the past and failed to heighten security accordingly, it seems unreasonable to me to suggest that the theater’s management should’ve foreseen the massacre.  Once again, turns out there’s no such evidence, at least not yet.  It’s also not at all clear that such guards would’ve been able to have meaningfully changed the outcome.

Such tendencies to want to spread blame are often borne of frustration with the slow pace of the justice system — I get it — but unless/until there’s evidence of a “Mansonesque” anarchistic conspiracy, there’s only one person responsible for the crimes committed in that theater, and that’s the shooter.  Any possibility that accomplices, advisors, financiers, etc. exist bears exhaustive investigation of course (particularly given the cost the the supplies used in the rampage), but in the meantime, we need to take a deep breath and be careful about this tendency to want to spread blame to others who clearly had zero direct involvement in the massacre.

Now, as the suspect returns to court Monday morning for his arraignment, I predict another relatively fast and unsatisfying event for the victims and their families (unsatisfying because it’ll be focused on the defendant and on the procedure rather than on the victims or on the substance of the crimes committed).  At the arraignment, the defendant will be formally charged.  There are likely to be dozens of charges, but the defense will probably waive formal reading of the charges.  The judge will then ask whether the defendant understands the charges.  This may be the first time we hear the words “incompetent” and/or “mentally ill” uttered in the courtroom, and if so, keep in mind the following:

1) We’re hearing that the shooter has been a psychiatric patient for some time.  So what?  Psychiatric patients can be guilty of crimes.  Even floridly-psychotic people can and should be held fully responsible for their actions so long as they are able to know what they’re doing and that their actions are criminal.

2) We’re hearing that the suspect has said and done a number of bizarre things in the presence of his jailers, such as A) pretending like hand coverings (employed to preserve gun-powder evidence on a suspect’s hands) were sock puppets while being transported to the jail on the night of the massacre, B) telling cops that there were explosives in his apartment (which is seemingly inconsistent with his elaborate placements of lethal booby-traps throughout), C) spitting at jailers, and D) claiming amnesia (i.e. no memory of the massacre).

I don’t buy the amnesia thing for a minute.  It simply doesn’t work that way.  (Someone asked whether his memory might be impaired because he took a bunch of Vicodin on the night of the massacre — I think not, and by the way, I think he probably took Vicodin, if he really did, in an attempt to make himself impervious to pain if in fact he was shot in the course of the massacre).  Given the antisocial malice that this guy has been enacting apparently for months (and I’ll bet it’s really more like years), I suspect that he’s simply trying to mock and taunt the cops and jail personnel with behaviors like the “sock-puppet” show and the spitting and the supposed “amnesia.”

As far as telling the cops about the explosives in the apartment, I don’t think we really know exactly what he said yet, but if he did mention some kind of threat in the apartment, I doubt that it was because he had a change of heart about committing murder.  My speculation would be that he thought he could actually increase the chances that cops would be killed by misleading them as to what was in the apartment and where it was located therein.

As I’ve said before, virtually nobody who’s seriously incompetent to stand trial and/or criminally insane is thinking on a complex-enough level to engage in elaborate planning, preparation, and practice of crimes.  Not only that, but active concealment of one’s criminal activities indicates actual awareness of the wrongfulness of one’s actions.  But even beyond that, this guy apparently created actual writings that evidence consciousness of guilt — the aforementioned package and a statement on a dating web site to the effect that potential dating partners “must be willing to visit prison.”  (And as I’ve theorized before, if this guy has “something to say” and is looking forward to the public platform of a trial from which to say it, then he may paradoxically resist his own attorneys’ efforts to label him incompetent and/or insane!)

And about that package specifically — some are wondering whether its contents are protected by doctor-patient privilege, given that the addressee had apparently treated the shooter in the past.  In fact, the shooter’s attorneys reportedly are asserting just that — doctor-patient privilege.  First of all, there was no violation of doctor-patient privilege in the recipient’s notification of authorities upon its receipt.  Here’s why:  Given what the suspect had done at that point, there was every reason to believe that the package could contain something deadly.  (By the way, it’s been publicized that the addressee, a psychiatrist, was disciplined by the state medical board several years ago for improper prescription practices, but I have to tell you, as someone who’s routinely consulted by medical boards as an expert in such cases, I think this particular revelation is probably of little relevance in the context of the massacre story).

Now that we know that the package doesn’t contain anything deadly, the doctor probably has an ethical responsibility to object to further disclosure of the contents in the absence of a court order, but I think that’s likely to be just a formality because such a court order is likely to come.  Here’s why:  First of all, I don’t consider this package to be a privileged doctor-patient communication (i.e. it wasn’t sent in the context of treatment).  For example, if a psychiatric patient says he’s going to go burn the psychiatrist’s house down, doctor-patient privilege doesn’t prohibit the psychiatrist from reporting the threat to police, even if nobody is home at the house.  Second of all, the defense’s only option in this case is to put the defendant’s mental health at issue, and as soon as that happens, it’ll be fair game for the prosecution as well as the defense to have access to his mental-health history and records (although we may not get to know what’s in it for a long time if the judge keeps a “gag” order in place barring substantive press releases by either side).

And about all of that meticulous planning that this defendant (allegedly) did — there was this big flaw in it…the jurisdiction that he chose, Aurora, CO.  Here’s why:  As Greta Van Susteren first pointed out, there currently are three inmates on Colorado’s Death Row, all three of whom committed their crimes in…Aurora.  Now this absolutely does not mean that Aurora’s the most dangerous city in Colorado (i.e. that the only capital crimes committed in Colorado get committed in Aurora), far from it.  What it means is that juries in Aurora give defendants the death penalty!  Look for a change of venue motion from the defense (that won’t be the stated reason — the stated reason will be alleged inability to get a fair trial in Aurora — but it may very well be a consideration behind the scenes).

Finally tonight, another big story that unfolded over the weekend, although it may not be a law-psychology story per se, is the opening of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.  Now I like watching the Olympics, and I respect the athletes’ pursuit of excellence, perseverance, self-discipline, etc.  But given all of the above, I feel compelled to point out that they are not, as I heard said multiple times this weekend, “courageous.”  The victims who threw their bodies on top of their loved ones during the massacre in Colorado, and the cops who ran toward the theater when everyone else was running away, and the first responders who did the same — they’re courageous.  Let’s face it — it really doesn’t take a lot of “courage” to dedicate your life to practicing and playing a game.  Like I said, it takes admirable qualities like commitment to excellence, dedication, and self-control; it’s fun to watch; I hope the U.S.A. wins a lot of medals; and I hope even more so that the security is air-tight (as presidential candidate Mitt Romney rightly questioned last week, and I couldn’t care less if folks in the U.K. liked the question or not; it was a good question) so we don’t have another Colorado-style incident there.  But seriously folks, while we’re being careful about throwing blame around, let’s also be careful about throwing the word “courageous” around.  I don’t mean to rain on the Olympic parade; I just think it’s a little insulting to our men and women fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere if we say that somebody’s “courageous” for participating in a swimming race or a soccer game in London.  Now, having said that, go U.S.A. (both places)!

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