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Insanity Pleas Would Be Tougher Under Colorado Bill

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(credit: iStock)

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DENVER (AP) – As lawyers for the man accused in the mass shooting at a suburban Denver movie theater last summer build the case that their client is mentally ill, lawmakers in Colorado are considering a measure that would make it tougher for defendants to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

If the longshot Republican proposal should pass, it would shift the burden of proof in insanity cases from prosecutors to defense lawyers. The effect of the legislation would mean defendants would have to prove they’re insane, instead of prosecutors trying to prove otherwise.

While the bill, up for consideration Wednesday, would not affect the trial of James Holmes, who has been accused of killing 12 people and wounding dozens of others in the June shooting rampage, the proposal’s sponsor says the case highlights the need for the law to be changed.

Accused movie theater shooter James Holmes makes his first court appearance at the Arapahoe County on July 23, 2012, in Centennial.  (Photo by RJ Sangosti-Pool/Getty Images)

Accused movie theater shooter James Holmes makes his first court appearance at the Arapahoe County on July 23, 2012, in Centennial. (Photo by RJ Sangosti-Pool/Getty Images)

“Forcing victims, forcing the families of victims to sit through a process where the prosecution has to prove that the alleged criminal is not insane isn’t the appropriate way to go about this,” said Republican state Rep. Frank McNulty, adding that it’s bad for victims and unnecessarily slows the legal process.

Many legal experts expect Holmes to enter an insanity plea in the coming months.

At least 30 states already put the burden of proof for such claims on defendants. Critics, including many defense attorneys, say Colorado’s current system should remain in place and that prosecutors should bear a heavy burden in proving their case.

“It’s fundamental to the U.S. system that you’re innocent until proven guilty,” said Dan Schoen, the executive director of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.

The Republican plan faces tough odds as Democrats control both chambers of the state Legislature. The measure already has been assigned to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, a Democrat-led panel where many GOP proposals or fringe bills with little support are dismissed.

Fmr. House Speaker Frank McNulty shakes hands with 2013 House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (credit: CBS)

Fmr. House Speaker Frank McNulty shakes hands with 2013 House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (credit: CBS)

Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, who assigned the bill, said the proposal will get a fair hearing, echoing comments McNulty used to make about bill assignments when he was speaker and responsible for assigning bills before the GOP lost the majority last year.

McNulty said this is an important bill that comes at an important time.

Should the measure pass it would present a challenge to a decades-old state Supreme Court decision that established current law, which is what McNulty wants.

“The way that we put this question back in front of the Supreme Court is to pass this bill that, I believe, brings fairness and equity to the system,” he said.

McNulty said another reason to bring the bill forward now is that much has changed in Colorado’s attitudes toward victims since the 1968 ruling, illustrated, in part, by a constitutional “Victim’s Rights” amendment established 20 years ago, which gives victims the right to be heard and informed during certain stages of a criminal proceeding.

Democratic Rep. Daniel Kagan, the chair of Judiciary Committee, where such bills typically are debated, offered some insight as to why McNulty’s proposal may not go far.

“Elements of crime should be proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution,” he said. “It’s a heavy burden, but it should be a burden. And juries are very good at figuring out when they are being conned by fake claims of insanity.”

- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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