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Insanity and the Criminal Trial as Spectacle

James Holmes, cropped.jpg

The website Concurring Opinions hosted a symposium on a book by Susanna Blumenthal, Law and the Modern Mind.

I reviewed Blumenthal's book for The Federal Lawyer, but surprisingly was not asked to contribute to the symposium. At any rate, I find some of the material gathered for this purpose intriguing.

In her reply to one of her critics, Blumenthal includes this thought:

I have long been fascinated with the theatricality of insanity trials and the extent to which they doubled as entertainment forms in nineteenth-century America, bearing a certain resemblance the commercial amusements of P.T. Barnum, who created controversies about his own exhibits, advertising that experts disagreed about their authenticity and democratically inviting “the sagacious public” to decide for themselves. 

This passage reminds me that James Holmes, the fellow who in 2012 dressed up as The Joker and shot up a movie theatre in Colorado, killing 12 people.

Holmes' trial in 2014 was the sort of spectacle that would have made Barnum proud. Three jurors were thrown out mid-trial because they couldn't refrain from discussion with one another of the news coverage the trial was getting.

Two other jurors were dismissed for other reasons: one of them because the judge learned that she personally knew one individual injured in Holmes' shooting. (Shouldn't voir dire have disclosed that...?)

The defense showed video of Holmes' behavior in his jail cell, which included scenes of him slamming his head into the cell wall.

Blumenthal continues....

As Martha notes, the trial is cast in my book as a “performance space,” though it is accompanied by the qualifier peculiar. This was meant to signify the strangeness of the legal actors’ (often quite self-consciously) dramatic moves, not least because the use of such rhetorical devices and conventions was in tension with their purported truth-value as reconstructions of past events bearing on the question of responsibility before the court. 

So Holmes' lawyers might have said, before showing that video, channelling Barnum as quoted by Blumenthal, "Decide for yourselves, sagacious jury, whether this is insane."


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