Is the Insanity Defense Fit for Our Time? — OZY's New Podcast - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Is the Insanity Defense Fit for Our Time? — OZY's New Podcast

By Sean Braswell


Because the human brain is a complex thing, and a “broken mind” can override even the healthiest of childhoods.

Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast. In Season 4, The Thread explores the controversial criminal defense that ties together some of the most notorious crimes in history: not guilty by reason of insanity. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.comSpotifyAppleHimalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.

You can still see the video on YouTube (and can watch it below). It’s really not all that exciting. It’s from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, in 2006. A group of young summer interns is giving presentations about the scientific research they conducted that summer. One of the program’s instructors introduces the next speaker. “His goals are to become a researcher and make scientific discoveries,” she says of 18-year-old James Eagan Holmes. “In personal life, he enjoys playing soccer and strategy games, and his dream is to own a Slurpee machine.” 

Everyone is still laughing as a skinny, geeky-looking kid with big ears and a mop of hair brushed forward over his forehead approaches the microphone. He wears an oversized shirt that’s buttoned but untucked. James Holmes is bright-eyed and, like almost anyone who’s asked to give a presentation before a packed room of peers and mentors, nervous and a bit awkward. He talks about his research on subjective experience, and the computer program he developed to help understand how people perceive causality. There is polite applause at the end. At that moment, Holmes is aware that he has what he refers to as his “broken mind” — it’s the reason he wants to be a neuroscientist. But no one, including Holmes, has any clue that fewer than six years later, he will walk into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and open fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. 

No one in this world starts out as a mentally deranged killer. And sometimes the signs don’t develop for years. Such was the case with Holmes, the 24-year-old graduate student whose horrific crime earned him the longest prison sentence in U.S. history: 3,318 years. Holmes’ story is the subject of the first episode of Season 4 of The Thread, launching this week on Apple Podcasts and elsewhere. In this latest season, OZY’s hit history podcast examines how some of history’s most notorious criminal defendants, including Holmes, are linked by a common thread: the insanity defense. 

James holmes, cropped

Holmes’ mugshot.


Because Holmes pleaded insanity as his defense to the horrific murders, his mental state and psychological history were opened up for examination by the jury. This meant Holmes’ youth and childhood were front and center during his trial. Starting with his birth announcement, large screens in the courtroom displayed aspects of his quite normal, even idyllic, childhood. The jury saw videos of little Jimmy, as his family called him, getting his first haircut, rolling out dough for gingerbread men, singing “Jingle Bells” with his younger sister at the piano. “He was planned for and wanted and hoped for and waited for,” his mother testified of her “miracle” son. His mother was a nurse, and his father was a statistician. They had met at Berkeley. They were both active in Jimmy’s life. His dad coached his soccer team. 

Holmes was always on the honor roll — the jury saw his report cards with straight A’s. Defense lawyers put forward three dozen witnesses, including teachers, friends, neighbors and coaches, who described him as “helpful,” “sweet” and “intelligent,” someone who never got angry or picked fights. Still, as Dr. William H. Reid, the esteemed court-appointed psychiatrist who examined Holmes for his murder trial, chronicles in A Dark Night in Aurora: Inside James Holmes and the Colorado Mass Shootings, there was something dark lurking under the surface of young Jimmy. Reid’s opinion was that Holmes primarily suffered from a condition called schizotypal personality disorder. 

Holmes heard noises hammering on his walls at night. He started to think about killing people. 

Around the sixth grade, Holmes started to keep to himself more. He had trouble making friends after the family moved. His mom recalled how her son had “lost his joy.” Holmes heard noises hammering on his walls at night. He started to think about killing people. There was some family history to Holmes’ condition. Close relatives, including his father’s twin sister, had been hospitalized with serious mental disorders. By high school, Holmes began to think he might be crazy. But, as his presentation at the Salk Institute demonstrated, he wanted to understand why to try to fix what was wrong with his mind. Despite his deteriorating mental state, he continued to excel in college at the University of California at Riverside, graduating with honors and a nearly perfect 4.0 GPA. He was accepted into the neuroscience graduate program at the University of Colorado, where he went in 2011. 

In Colorado, Holmes got worse, and he started hurtling toward disaster. He got behind on his studies, left the laboratory early. He began seeing things at night that weren’t there. He had more thoughts about killing people. Still, there were periods of utter normalcy. On Valentine’s Day 2012, Holmes made his girlfriend a candlelit chicken dinner at his apartment. They watched Netflix and ate ice cream. But Holmes’ brain was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the idea that his worth as a human being, and his own depression, could somehow be improved if he killed other people. “He told me,” says Reid, “he was willing to kill others on the 50-50 chance of feeling a bit better himself.”

Five months after that Valentine’s dinner, Holmes gambled on those odds, taking a tactical shotgun, a high-capacity assault rifle and a handgun into Theater 9 of the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora. His genetic makeup, his brain chemistry, had triumphed over his warm, idyllic upbringing. Little Jimmy had become a killer.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories