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July 01, 2015

Colorado movie rampage jurors to hear from expert on psychosis

Calling into question his note-taking, qualifications and conclusions about gunman James Holmes, the lead prosecutor in Colorado's movie massacre trial put the defense's first expert witness through a withering cross-examination.

But District Attorney George Brauchler may have a tougher time trying to discredit the public defender's star witness: an eminent psychiatrist involved in the aftermath of some of the nation's worst mass violence cases.

She is expected to testify that Holmes was legally insane when he opened fire inside an Aurora cinema in July 2012 during a midnight premiere of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises," killing a dozen people and wounding 70.

The 27-year-old former neuroscience graduate student, whose lawyers do not dispute he carried out the attack, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the death penalty case.

Prosecutors say Holmes intended to murder all 400 people in the theater, but failed in part because his Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle jammed. It was one of America's worst mass shootings, and the trial is particularly high profile because it takes place in a state which has executed only one person in almost 50 years.

The defense's first expert witness, Denver psychiatrist Jonathan Woodcock, faced an hours-long barrage of sometimes hostile questions from Brauchler over two days at the end of last week after testifying that he found Holmes was insane at the time of the slayings.

Brauchler asked Woodcock why he did not watch all 22 hours of video interviews conducted by one of two court-appointed psychiatrists who found the defendant to be sane. And the prosecutor grilled him on much of his curriculum vitae, suggesting he listed media appearances as invited lectures.

Defense lawyers say their star witness, who is due to take the stand before they wrap up their case next week, will bring a unique authority and perspective.

Raquel Gur is director of the Schizophrenia Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Nowadays there are a lot of talking heads out there with a lot of opinions. But we wanted someone who was a true expert," lead defense lawyer Daniel King said in his opening statement.

He described Gur as one of the world's foremost experts on psychotic disorders, and he said she works on very few criminal cases. 

"She teaches and treats patients, and does research with million-dollar grants into schizophrenia, and studies the brain and how these things are developed," King said.

"She's probably talked to more psychotic people than any other doctor that I'm aware of."


Gur once evaluated Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, the former mathematics professor who became one of the country's most notorious criminals by killing three people and wounding 29 with homemade bombs sent through the mail between 1978 and 1995.

He was captured in 1996 living in a remote Montana cabin, and was interviewed afterward by Gur, who believed he met the diagnostic criteria for paranoid schizophrenia.

After she shared her opinion with Kaczynski, he reportedly refused to talk with her any further. 

Gur also examined Arizona mass shooter Jared Loughner, who opened fire at a political rally outside a Tucson supermarket in 2011, killing six people and wounding 13 others including then-U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

He pleaded guilty to multiple counts of murder and attempted murder, and was sentenced in 2012 to life without parole.

Gur was also called in by the White House because of her expertise to serve on a task force in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, King told the jury.

The defense is likely to argue that Gur's diagnosis is more valid than those of the two court-appointed psychiatrists who concluded Holmes was sane, because she met him sooner after his arrest than they did, before he was heavily medicated.

Gur addressed a conference of psychiatrists in Philadelphia in 2013, almost a year after she was retained by Holmes' team.

She said early identification of psychosis should be a national priority, spurred in part by incidents of gun violence involving mental illness, according to an account of her speech published in the journal Psychiatric News.

"It is time we do it ... We need to investigate the precursors that will allow us with increased confidence to detect early (those at risk)," she said.

People who later develop acute psychosis begin to deviate from developmental norms as early as age 10, Gur added.

"So the train toward psychosis leaves the station early, and we are trying to capture it before it derails," she said. "When it derails, it's too late."