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What James Holmes’s diary says about the Aurora theater shooter’s sanity

James Holmes at the Arapahoe County Justice Center in Centennial, Colo., in 2013. (Andy Cross/Reuters/File)

In recent weeks, a Colorado jury has endured a stream of ghastly evidence as they consider whether Aurora movie-theater shooter James Holmes deserves the death penalty.

There have been grisly autopsy photos of a 6-year-old shooting victim from the 2012 massacre, and witness testimony describing “how other people’s blood coursed over their faces” as bullets “tore through arms and legs and collar bones” after Holmes opened fire during a midnight screening of the “The Dark Knight Rises” in suburban Denver, killing 12 and injuring another 70, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and does not dispute the fact that he planned and executed the mass slaughter in 2012.

“I knew it was legally wrong,” Holmes told a court-appointed psychiatrist whose video interview with the gunman has been played for the jury, according to the Times. “You get punished for killing people.”

But his victims were “not real people,” he added. “It was just kind of amorphous people who were going to get hurt. … I didn’t look at them. I didn’t, like, single them out as individuals.”

The jury has been warned not to decide his fate based on revulsion or rage, the Times reported, which explains why it may come down to a brown spiral notebook, which Holmes titled “Of Life.”

[Aurora theater shooter’s dark diary describes his ‘obsession to kill’]

In the notebook, Holmes made lists of weapons he planned to buy and, using detailed drawings of the theater, considered which auditorium to attack using lists of pros and cons, according to the Associated Press.

Holmes also referred to his “broken mind” and wrote that his decision to attack moviegoers came from a “lifelong hatred of mankind.”

“Prosecutors,” Andrew Cohen writes for The Marshall Project, “have told jurors that Holmes’ writings and drawings evince clear criminal intent — and methodical, reasoned preparation for mass murder. Defense attorneys, on the other hand, have told the panel that the contents of the diary instead are evidence of deep mental illness, a form of psychosis that suggests Holmes was legally insane at the time of the shootings.”

[Why the Aurora movie theater shooting trial is so unusual]

To add perspective to the notebook’s contents, The Marshall Project enlisted the expertise of Jeffrey Lieberman, a prominent psychiatrist and the former president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Though he has neither treated nor interviewed Holmes, Lieberman has previously commented on the Holmes case, The Marshall Project notes.

According to Lieberman’s assessment, the notebook reveals the story of “a confused, distressed, and troubled young adult.” But Lieberman ultimately concludes that “no mental disorder is clearly apparent.” 

Prosecutors have promised to show the jury interviews with two psychiatrists, both of whom determined that Holmes suffered from a mental illness but was sane at the time of the shootings, according to the AP. 

“It begins,” Lieberman said of Holmes’s notebook, “with him trying to find solace through soul-searching and philosophical musings, but then segues into what he regards as behavioral imperatives to discharge or resolve volatile feelings. In the interim, he seeks and receives help from professionals associated with the University of Colorado student mental health services, but he does not sufficiently disclose his ailments to the doctors.”

Lieberman suggests that the fragmented, rambling style of Holmes’s notes could be seen as a “plea for sympathy” for his eventual crime. The psychiatrist tells The Marshall Project that the notebook captures a tormented person struggling with isolation and struggling to manage his emotions.

“Whatever the case,” Lieberman said, “it seems clear that he realizes what he is doing and is willing to face the consequences.”

However, he continued, the content, while disturbing, reflects thoughts that are “organized, coherent” and “linguistically correct.”

“His references to being crazy or having a broken mind are also not pathognomonic, as insane people generally don’t think or know that they are insane,” he said.

“He does not reveal what would be considered psychotic symptoms,” Lieberman added. “The major issues are his alienation, disaffection, isolation, fear and anger. No mental disorder is clearly apparent.”

You can find the entirety of Holmes’s notebook, along with Lieberman’s full assessment, on The Marshall Project’s site.

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