Just as the emotions from the Sandy Hook tragedy were becoming less intense, the world is about to be forced to relive a similar tragedy. A preliminary hearing is scheduled to begin next week for alleged mass shooter James Holmes. Holmes is accused of killing 12 people at a screening of The Dark Knight last summer in Aurora, Colorado.
A preliminary hearing is a proceeding before the court in which the prosecution must prove there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. This will be first time the public and the media will get a glimpse at the evidence against Holmes, and we should get an idea of what kind of defense Holmes' lawyers will use should the case proceed to trial.
Holmes has not entered a plea yet. However, media reports say Holmes' lawyers believe their client to be mentally ill. This could open the door to an insanity defense.
In Canada, the standards for such a defense are a little different. Section 16 of the Criminal Code says, "No person is criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong."
I was recently standing in line for dinner in a food court and I overheard two uneducated people joking about how they could shoot up a place, say they were crazy and then not go to jail. It's true, those found not criminally responsible don't typically go to jail, but they are put into a secure psychiatric facility indefinitely. The accused's case is reviewed annually by a provincial review board. In Ontario, that's the Ontario Review Board.
There appears to be an assumption that those found not criminally responsible will be put into a psychiatric facility and released shortly after. A Quebec man released just 4 years after being found not criminally responsible of killing his children has only fueled this belief.
In truth, the goal of treatment facilities and the courts isn't to punish those found not criminally responsible for their crimes. It is to rehabilitate those with severe mental illness and mental disorders so they can be functioning members of society. It is an opportunity for them to learn more about their mental illness so it can be treated, something that likely didn't happen before their offense.
It is only human to want to see somebody pay for and be punished for their crimes. Heck, even I'm guilty of thinking "Where's a cop when you need one?" after somebody runs through a red light. As the old saying goes, "There are exceptions to every rule".
I have never been the victim of a crime nor do I know of anybody who has been the victim of a heinous crime. But I can understand wanting the harshest penalty possible for somebody who victimized somebody close to me. Yet, though the reasons for for mental illness are complex, what's obvious is that people suffering from it are in desperate need of treatment. People in these situations have hit rock bottom, and it's my opinion that their crimes could be a call for help.
It's fun to think about what we would do with a "get out of jail free card." But the reality is that those only exist in Monopoly. The "not criminally responsible" ruling isn't designed to keep everybody out of jail. It is a tool available to our justice system to be applied to people with the most complex issues that can only be resolved in a psychiatric setting.
I hope you'll keep this in mind as you read about James Holmes' preliminary hearing -- and the next time you think about not wanting to be held responsible for your actions.