Holmes, Peterson, and Zimmerman updates

Here are a few quick updates on developments in the Holmes, Peterson, and Zimmerman cases:

Holmes:  We’re hearing now that Colorado movie theater massacre defendant James Holmes was the subject of some discussion among members of a “behavioral evaluation and threat assessment” or “BETA” team at the University of Colorado shortly before he announced his intention to withdraw from a Ph.D. program at that university.  Holmes’ treating psychiatrist, the recipient of the mysterious package that I discussed earlier in the week, reportedly was a member of that team and was presumably the initiator of the team’s discussion, but it’s unclear what precipitated her concern and whether she observed it personally or heard about it from someone else.

It’s possible that Holmes engaged in some kind of an angry tirade or outburst upon learning that he failed to pass a milestone examination, which effectively sealed his fate in his program of study, thereby prompting concern about the safety of others associated with the program.  In the alternative, or in addition, it’s possible that Holmes engaged in some kind of a suicidal expression or gesture, thereby prompting concern about his own safety.  What’s apparent is that there was at least some concern and discussion about whether Holmes posed a threat to himself and/or others.  It appears that the BETA team’s discussion of Holmes was effectively closed, however, when he withdrew from the University and left the campus a short time thereafter.

Even as one who has conducted threat/risk assessments for corporate America, hospitals, and law-enforcement agencies, it’s tough to say whether University personnel did everything that they should have done until I know what prompted the BETA team’s discussion in the first place.  I can tell you that documented consultation and concurrence with colleagues generally goes a long way to establish a presumption that the actions of an individual mental-health professional, the treating/referring psychiatrist in this case, were reasonable under the circumstances.  If the psychiatrist’s concerns were confined to the school’s campus and/or to Holmes individually, then it’s also important to keep in mind that nothing happened on the campus and that Holmes didn’t commit suicide (at least not in the traditional, short-term sense).

Yes, it’s certainly possible that the concerns should have extended to the general public and prompted the involvement of local law enforcement and that the team members collectively erred in not notifying the police, but given that hindsight is 20/20 and foresight is not, I’ll need to hear more before I can fairly opine as to whether any professional negligence occurred in this case.  Stay tuned.

Peterson:  I hate to say it, but my opinion of the prosecution’s case against Drew Peterson as “no slam dunk” has only strengthened in the first two days of testimony, which included two admonishments of the prosecution for bringing up certain things that the judge has ruled are more prejudicial (to Peterson) than probative (of murder) and are therefore off limits (e.g. the prosecutor’s innuendo on Tuesday about Peterson trying to hire someone to kill the victim and a witness’ innuendo on Wednesday about Peterson trying to intimidate the victim by leaving a bullet in front of her house).

The defense has asked the judge to declare a mistrial each time, and after rejecting Tuesday’s request, the judge on Wednesday proposed continuing the trial and striking the testimony of the witness (Peterson’s former next-door neighbor) in its entirety.  The defense is considering that option overnight tonight.  I predict that the trial will in fact continue on Thursday, and as a litigation consultant, I’m concerned that the likelihood of a conviction may have been further reduced if jurors have perceived either bumbling or unfairness on the part of the prosecution.

I’m not planning on writing witness-by-witness recaps of the testimony in this case because I know you can get those in real time elsewhere if you’re interested, but I do plan to post synopses and commentary when major developments occur, like if a mistrial is declared or when, not if, the prosecution attempts to introduce potentially-pivotal “hearsay” evidence using an Illinois statutory exception to the general exclusion of hearsay (and the events of the past two days also may have hurt the prosecution’s chances of getting the judge to admit that evidence, so again, stay tuned).

Zimmerman:  The judge in the trial of George Zimmerman, accused of second-degree murder in the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, has rejected a defense request to recuse himself and allow a new judge to take over.  The request was based on the defense’s contention that the judge developed/displayed bias against Zimmerman in the course of ruling that Zimmerman had been deceptive about his finances at his original bail hearing (Zimmerman was re-arrested and spent a few additional weeks in jail before the judge re-released him with a much higher bail).  I’m inclined to think that this isn’t that big of a deal, and if, as I predict, Zimmerman’s ultimately found to have acted in self-defense, it may even help to reassure the public that the judge conducted the case according to the law, i.e., that the judge had no predisposition to favor the defense.  (Stay tuned for developments in this case, too, but it’s at a stage where major developments may be fewer and farther between for a while.)

P.S.  After writing about a “quasi-copycat” crime plot on Wednesday afternoon, I learned that another needle was found in an airline meal on Wednesday, this time on an Air Canada flight.  It appears unlikely that the airline catering company that prepared Wednesday’s meal was the same company that prepared the meals in which needles were discovered on Delta flights a couple of weeks ago.  If that’s true, then Wednesday’s discovery looks like a true “copycat” crime, but it’s a particularly alarming one because it shows a persisting vulnerability in airline security that terrorists could try to exploit as a means of getting things more lethal than needles onto airplanes.

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