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James Holmes Arraigned on 142 Charges; Profiling Young Mass Murderers

July 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
James Holmes faces up to 142 charges for the theater shootings in Aurora, Colo. Gwen Ifill talks to Peter Banda of The Associated Press about Holmes' arraignment hearing. Plus, James Alan Fox of Northeastern University and reporter Dave Cullen discuss whether the suspect is different from other mass shooters.
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GWEN IFILL: Colorado prosecutors formally charged James Holmes today with 24 counts of first-degree murder in one of the deadliest mass killings ever.

There were two charges for each of the 12 people killed in the movie theater in Aurora. And the 24-year-old also faces two counts of attempted murder for each of the 58 injured. The murder charges carry a maximum penalty of death and a minimum of life without parole.

Peter Banda of The Associated Press was in the courtroom today. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Peter Banda, thank you for joining us again.

One hundred and forty-two counts, that seems like a lot for 12 victims. Why so many?

PETER BANDA, The Associated Press: Well, for the murder charges, there are 24 counts of murder, two charges for each of the 12 victims who were killed at the theater.

They’re charging him under two different theories, one, first-degree murder after deliberation, the second one, first-degree murder extreme indifference.

And on the other counts, there’s 116 counts of attempted murder, two each for each of the injured victims. There were 58 people who were injured in that theater. And then there’s an additional charge of possession of explosives.

GWEN IFILL: So it’s far beyond just the murder charges.

His attorneys, his defense attorneys were in court today asking for additional information. What was that about?

PETER BANDA: The additional information, they want to get to the bottom of who leaked the report of a package sent to a psychiatrist at C.U.

This psychiatrist is described in court papers as his psychiatrist. And it also describes a notebook that reportedly contains details of the crime. The prosecutors told the judge that they will turn over the information as part of the regular discovery or the regular turning over of evidence to the defense attorneys. So, that’s what they were seeking.

GWEN IFILL: So, they confirmed that that in fact exists?

PETER BANDA: That’s correct.

The prosecutors talked about a notebook. They talked about a bomb squad opening up the package. They talked about two videos that exist that show this package in a mailroom and it being opened up. So there’s definitely a notebook and there’s definitely a package.

GWEN IFILL: And, as far as we know, it never actually reached the psychiatrist that it was addressed to?

PETER BANDA: That’s correct. That’s correct. It was discovered, I believe, on Monday. And that’s when they opened it. And that’s when they learned that there was in fact a notebook.

Now, as far as, you know, what’s in the notebook, prosecutors in court today didn’t talk about that.

GWEN IFILL: Peter, we have an indelible image by now of what James Holmes looked like in court last week.

PETER BANDA: Right. Right.

GWEN IFILL: What was it like today?

PETER BANDA: Basically the same thing, except his hair was different.

You see the curly hair, kind of poofy in the pictures from last week. Today, his hair was flat. It was — it looked like he had had a cap on and had taken it off and it was smashed. But other than that, his demeanor was just like people remember it from the video that was aired last week.

Throughout the hearing, he was — you know, didn’t show much emotion. There was a point during the hearing where, you know, people are familiar with this, where he’s — his eyes seem to be — he seems to be having trouble keeping his eyes open. And, you know…

GWEN IFILL: Did he…

PETER BANDA: Go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Did he speak at any point?

PETER BANDA: Well, you know, and so — and so, as he’s listening to the proceedings, you know, he just kind of, you know, looking around the courtroom — not necessarily looking around, but in a general straight-ahead area.

And, you know, he’s kind of, you know, with this — trying to keep his eyes open seemingly. The judge addressed him and was asking him about a court hearing. They were talking about, you know, pushing it out some weeks over what it normally would be. And when the judge addressed him, he asked him to talk to his attorney about it.

And that sort of seemed to snap him out of whatever demeanor he was in. And at that point, he furrowed his brow and kind of leaned over to his attorney, and the attorney was talking. He was shaking his head. He mouthed — seemingly upset — to me, it looked like he mouthed, “OK.”

And then the judge then asked him, you know, is it OK to extend this hearing out? And he said, “Yes.” He said it in a low voice. I could barely hear it. It sounded like he said, “Yes.” And that was about it.

GWEN IFILL: Yes. Now, this judge has banned electronics and cameras from the courtroom and imposed a gag order on the attorneys. So it’s  kind of important to hear it through your eyes.

Who else was in the courtroom today? Last week, we saw victims in the courtroom. Was it is the same way today?

PETER BANDA: That’s correct.

There were victims and victims’ families. There was one lady who was there who had her arm bandaged. And on the opposite — her other arm had hospital bracelets on it. She was — she also had a wound on one of her legs. And when she came out of the courtroom — I didn’t notice this when I was in the courtroom, but she — she came out in a wheelchair.

There were other people who were there. One gentleman was leaning forward and looking straight at the suspect the entire time, never took his eyes off of him.

GWEN IFILL: No plea was entered today, but we’re expecting this to happen some time soon?

PETER BANDA: No, actually.

What will happen, there will be a series of motions hearings, including one motion by the media to unseal the court record. But an arraignment where the suspect will enter a plea won’t happen until his preliminary hearing. And that won’t happen until November.

GWEN IFILL: Not until November.

Peter Banda of The Associated Press, thanks so much for taking us inside the courtroom.

PETER BANDA: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: So is the alleged shooter, James Holmes, a typical or an atypical suspect in cases like these?

For that, we turn to a researcher and a criminologist who have studied other mass shootings.

James Alan Fox is professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University. He’s written widely on the topic, including in his book “Extreme Killing.” And Dave Cullen is the author of “Columbine,” the bestselling book about 1999′s deadly Littleton, Colo., high school shooting.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

Dave Cullen, I want to start with you. We think of the names Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and even at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho, and we think to ourselves, these are typical of what mass killers do and now allegedly James Holmes? What is the profile?

DAVE CULLEN, author of “Columbine”: Well, it’s interesting what you said, that these are typical and whether there’s a profile, because there is no single profile. That’s for sure.

But between the three of them, oddly enough, we have the three different profiles, because nearly all of these mass murderers turn out to be one of those three profiles. Eric Harris was a psychopath in the clinical sense, meaning no empathy, no remorse, no feeling for others. Dylan Klebold at Columbine was a deep-suicidally depressed kid. And Cho was delusional, out of touch with reality, deeply mentally ill.

Nearly all killers fall into one of those categories, but the three categories are completely different. And if you want to understand their thought process and how they get to murder completely, you have got to separate them into those groups, because they’re completely different.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Fox, one of the things that came out of watching James Holmes last week in court is that people thought he was either insane or medicated or very clever in his behavior in court. Are we assuming too much? Are people racing too fast to try to understand this?

JAMES ALAN FOX, Northeastern University: Probably.

Most mass murderers kill people they know for particular reasons, very selective. This is the rarest form of mass murderer, who kills at random. And it could either be someone who is deeply schizophrenic and psychotic, who believes that everyone in the world is evil and has to be punished, which would imply psychosis, or it could be someone who is indeed just trying to show how powerful they are, how superior they are and went through a tremendous amount of planning to get to that end.

We don’t know for sure. We may never know, actually. But one thing is clear, that in a case like this, the insanity defense is really a Hail Mary. It’s the only option the defense has. But just like his eyes, open and shut, I would say that this prosecution, too, would be open and shut.

GWEN IFILL: Dave Cullen, is there a triggering event that usually brings this on, whether or not you’re delusional or psychotic or just severely, suicidally depressed? Is there something that needs to flick that switch?

DAVE CULLEN: Not really. And usually the term we hear a lot is snap. How did he snap or when did he snap?

And that’s really the kind of terminology that I think leads us astray, because it’s not sort of a flipping a switch. It’s not an off-on thing. It’s a gradual evolution, which usually goes on for months or even years. Most of them plan in advance, but it takes years before that.

Now, given all that and the sort of slow downward spiral that they normally go through, there can be sort of a final element. And in most cases of mass murderers — there was a great study on the school shooters in particular done by the Secret Service, where they found that 98 percent of them, you know, a staggering 98 percent had suffered what they considered either a major failure or loss in the time leading up to it.

So there usually is something. Think of that more as a final straw or someone that continues down the path, much more so than something that then set it in motion.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: Professor Fox, one of the things we always start to ask ourselves when these things happen is, is there something we should have seen? Are there signs that we should have been watching for? What do you say to that?

JAMES ALAN FOX: Sure. In the aftermath — in the aftermath, all those warning signs become crystal-clear, when hindsight is 20/20.

They’re really not red flags. They’re yellow flags that only turn red once the blood has spilled upon them. The problem is that there’s a very large pool of individuals in this country, thousands upon thousands, who are frustrated and angry and disappointed, who blame other people for their problems, who are socially isolated and don’t have lots of friends nearby or family nearby to help them get through the hard times, and have access to guns.

The good news, I guess, is that very, very few of them will ever take action. And we really have no way to predict. We — the characteristics are very predictable, but the identity of these perpetrators are not until after the fact. And let me add one other thing…

GWEN IFILL: Mm-hmm.

JAMES ALAN FOX: … that Dave Cullen explained very well.  

Younger shooters, the school shooters and even the alleged gunman in Colorado, being 24, are very different than actually the typical mass murderer, who is older. Mass murderers tend to be actually in their 30s and 40s. So the school shooter shares certain characteristics with mass killers generally, but not — but they really in a certain way are a little bit atypical of the mass murderer, who is very deliberate, who has a history of frustration over years, and kills to punish others for the — all the troubles that they have had over their lifetime.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both. Another thing that typically arose in a lot of people’s conversations right after this happened a few weeks ago is that this is on the rise, that it seems like it’s always happening.

And that’s what I’m going to ask you both, Dave Cullen, starting with you. Is this typical now? Is this unique to the United States? Is this something that we should worry about in that context?

DAVE CULLEN: Well, it’s definitely not unique to the United States.

We have had, you know, horrific cases recently in Germany, in Norway and several different countries. It is more prevalent here. The professor probably has better data than I do on whether these are on the rise or not. But I have seen a lot of conflicting information on that.

GWEN IFILL: What about that, Professor?

JAMES ALAN FOX: No, they’re not on the rise.

We have had in this country about two dozen mass murders each year. Most of them aren’t to this extreme. But we do have every year about two dozen homicides with four or more victims killed. It hasn’t changed over the past 35 years. I have data virtually on all of these cases.

And there are times when we see flurries of cases. In the ’80s, we had the postal shootings. In the ’90s, we had the school shootings. We have had restaurant shootings. We have the shootings at health clubs. There’s no pattern up or down. But I agree that we in the United States have far more than other countries.

We don’t have a monopoly on mass murder, but we certainly have cornered the market. But then again, our homicide rate is much higher as well. And part of it is just symptomatic of the violence in our society generally.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, I want to ask you, Dave Cullen, very quickly, one of the conclusions you reached in your Columbine investigation is that almost everything we heard in the first few weeks turned out not to be true.

DAVE CULLEN: Yes, it did.

I mean, most people think they know the basics about Columbine, that we know that there were these two loner, outcast goths who were part of the trench coat mafia who were bullied relentlessly by jocks and then did this as a huge revenge against the jocks and targeted the jocks.

None of that is true. And that was all a mythology which began as speculation in the media by people like us during the first few days. And it very quickly crystallized into fact and was believed. And that’s the danger we need to not repeat this time.

GWEN IFILL: We have to be very cautious of whatever we’re reporting and interpreting in the next several weeks. Thank you both very much.

On our website, you can find a link to a photo gallery of images related to the shootings captured by The Denver Post, as well as our own coverage archive.