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The rampage that claimed at least 12 lives at a Colorado theater showing the latest Batman movie is among the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. in the past 15 years.
The toll approaches the 15 killed in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Aurora, where today’s shooting occurred during an early morning screening (TWX) of “The Dark Knight Rises.” The deadliest such incident in the U.S. since then is the Virginia Tech rampage of April 2007 in Blacksburg, Virginia, in which Seung-Hui Cho took 33 lives, including his own.
Prosecuting such crimes raises the inevitable question of the defendant’s sanity, according to Richard Kornfeld, who represented the family of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold. James Holmes, 24, was arrested at the scene of the Aurora shooting, Police Chief Dan Oates told reporters. Any defense of Holmes would have to initially determine his mental state, Kornfeld, of Recht Kornfeld PC in Denver, said in a phone interview.
“Most people think an insanity defense is a hyper- technical cop-out, as if it existed in the law just to get around things,” Kornfeld said. “The real analysis from the lawyer’s perspective is: Can this person assist you in trying to help them.”
Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers said at a press conference today in Aurora that Holmes will be in court next week. She didn’t specify a date. He’s currently in county jail, Oates said. Holmes isn’t known to police and doesn’t have a criminal record, the chief said. There’s no indication of a terrorism link at this point, officials said.
In March 2009, 13 people died when Jiverly Wong, an unemployed immigrant from Vietnam, opened fire on a civic center in Binghamton, New York. He killed himself. That same month, Michael McLendon fatally shot 10 relatives and bystanders in what Alabama authorities called the single deadliest crime in the state’s history. He also committed suicide.
Later that year, Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army major, allegedly shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas. Hasan, who survived and is awaiting trial, had been communicating by e-mail with Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical cleric who was part of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike last year.
Six people died in January 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner allegedly went on a rampage in Tucson, Arizona, at a community meeting organized by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a head wound sustained in the incident. Loughner has pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder.
Most recently, One Goh was charged with multiple counts of murder for the lethal shooting of seven people at a college in Oakland, California, in April.
Outside the U.S., 77 people died a year ago this week in Norway in twin attacks by Anders Behring Breivik.
Motivations behind the attacks can vary, when they are discernible at all.
The Columbine shooters, Klebold and Eric Harris, who committed suicide after killing 13 people, were motivated by thoughts of glorious suicide, revolution and vengeance for petty slights, according to Dave Cullen’s book “Columbine.” Harris bragged in his journal about “topping” Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma, Cullen said.
Hasan communicated with Islamic radicals before the shootings at Fort Hood, according to investigators.
Breivik, who’s fighting to be found sane, has said the murders were “gruesome but necessary” to fight multiculturalism and the spread of Islam. Most of his victims, some as young as 14, were attending a Labor Party youth camp.
Wong, who allegedly fired 99 rounds at the upstate New York civic center where he was studying English, sent a letter to a local television station accusing police of harassing him for two decades.
Loughner, the former college student accused of attacking the Giffords gathering in Arizona, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He has been undergoing psychiatric treatment and forced medication to render him competent to stand trial.
McLendon, the Alabama shooter, left behind a letter describing “ill feelings” toward his family. A self-proclaimed survivalist, he carried two assault rifles, a shotgun and a handgun and fired at least 125 rounds during his rampage. He shot his mother first, then her four dogs, before setting them on fire.
The Virginia Tech shooter, Cho, in a videotaped manifesto, cited grudges against the world and said he was inspired by past U.S. school shootings, of which perhaps the most famous was Columbine, in Colorado.
A white Hyundai belonging to Holmes was parked at the theater, Oates said. Police found four weapons, three of which were used at the scene. A 40-caliber Glock handgun was found in the car. Police aren’t sure if that was used and it’s unclear how many rounds Holmes fired, Oates said.
Holmes was dressed in all black and wore a bulletproof helmet, vest and leggings, according to Oates.
“If he’s competent I fully expect it will be a case where the prosecution seeks capital punishment,” said Craig Silverman, a former prosecutor in the Denver District Attorney’s Office who’s now in private practice.
To seek the death penalty prosecutors need to establish one statutory aggravating factor. The fact that the case involves multiple victims, some children, qualifies, Silverman said. Capital cases are rare in Colorado, Silverman said.
Three men are on the state’s death row, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections website. One, Nathan Dunlap, was convicted of killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993. The last person executed in Colorado was 53- year-old Gary Lee Davis on Oct. 13, 1997.
“Colorado is not some wacko state,” Kornfeld said. “I don’t think Colorado is crazier than any other place when it comes to angry people and easy access to firearms.”
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