Fault Lines
23 April 2017

From Slender Man to Aurora, Mental Illness as an age-old Defense

July 15, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — How old does a homicidal schizophrenic person need to be before society stops offering mercy?  Comparing the criminal cases of Morgan Geyser and James Holmes might provide the answer.

James Eagan Holmes opened fire at a midnight showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012.  Twelve people died.  Fifty-eight people were wounded by gunfire.  Twelve people were injured trying to escape the theatre.

Prosecutors charged Holmes with 24 counts of murder and 140 counts of attempted murder.  He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.  Closing arguments in his trial begin this week

James Eagan Holmes was 24 years-old at the time of the offense.

Morgan Geyser, along with her friend Anissa Weier, lured a 12 year-old girl into the Michigan woods in May 2013, then stabbing her at least nineteen times with a kitchen knife.  Geyser and Weier left their victim in the woods to bleed to death.  Payton Leutner, the young victim, survived after dragging herself to a trail where a bicyclist later found her.

Prosecutors charged Geyser with one count of intentional first-degree homicide.

Morgan Geyser was 12 years old at the time of the offense.

Notebooks: The Evidence Trail of Choice for the Mentally Ill

Prosecutors in both cases had little trouble collecting evidence about the mental states of the defendants.

A notebook of James Holmes includes passages where he wrote about an “obsession to kill” and his own “broken mind.”  Holmes appeared to debate the relative merits of different locations for his attack.  He opted to avoid an airport because he estimates that too much security will be present for him to get very far.  James Holmes may be the one person in America who gives the TSA that much credit.

Transcripts from an FBI interview with James Holmes suggest that Holmes may have rigged his apartment with booby traps and explosives in advance of the shooting.  The defense disputed the quality of the transcription, it should be noted.

According to police interrogations and subsequent interviews with mental health professionals, Morgan Geyser and Weier had been plotting the crime for months.  She claimed that the murder was to be a sign of devotion to Slender Man, a fictional character often featured in stories on the horror fiction website CreepyPasta.

In the police interview video, Morgan remarks, “You have no idea how difficult it was not to tell anyone. I knew we’d get in trouble.’”

Morgan Geyser’s notebooks from before the stabbing are, like the Holmes notebook, disturbing.  She drafted a list of supplies needed for the attack and subsequent escape into the woods to join up with Slender Man.  She apparently anticipated needing “pepper spray,” “map of forest,” “camera,” “spray bottle,” “cheesecake,” ”the will to live,” “weapons (kitchen knife),” and “flashlights.”  Morgan Geyser also apparently mutilated several of her Barbie dolls and repeatedly sketched images of Slender Man and other horror characters.

What distinguishes these two cases?

A handy rule of thumb for determining when a crime has received plenty of press is when it earns a moniker like “Aurora theatre shooting” or “Slender Man stabbing,” rather than simply falling into the obscurity of most homicides and attempted homicides.  Yet, public perception of the two cases has been very different, at least in some circles.  Why?

Obviously, Holmes succeeded in ending the lives of his victims, whereas Geyser did not.  Obviously, the two defendants differed in age.

Legal consequences gain severity and treatment options narrow when a defendant is processed in the adult justice system rather than as a juvenile.  Morgan Geyser’s lawyers are asking the court to reverse transfer her case to the juvenile system, even though Michigan law mandates that individuals charged with first-degree homicide be prosecuted in the adult system, regardless of the defendant’s age.

At age 24 at the time of Aurora shootings, prosecuting James Holmes in the adult system was not in question.

But even if the difference between 12 and 24 amounts to a significant practical difference in the criminal justice system, should it?

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Supporters of Morgan Geyser argue that she deserves treatment, not punishment.  Her mother, Angie Geyser, quickly took the lead in advocating for her daughter’s interests.  She has spoken extensively to the media throughout the last year’s proceedings.  She started — and publicized — a Change.org petition.

Angie Geyser begins her pitch, “Our beautiful daughter Morgan is twelve years old, and has been diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia. Unfortunately, her diagnosis came too late, and she is being charged as an adult for crime that occurred last May.”  She stresses that her daughter will only get worse if her “brain disease” goes untreated.  Simply confining her is unacceptable, Angie Geyser says.

Nearly 3,000 supporters have signed the petition.

Other advocates created the website SlenderChance.com.  According to the site:

Morgan Geyser was a 12 year old girl. She came from a loving home with strong familial bonds. She had an undiagnosed mental illness, which she had been hiding from her parents. She became fixated on an idea, which developed into a delusion. This delusion provoked a very violent crime. The victim lived. Morgan Geyser is now being prosecuted for said violent crime. In December of 2014 Morgan was found competent to stand trial. More recently, on March 13th, the judge found probable cause to charge Morgan with 1st degree attempted homicide, which means she will end up in the adult court system, and will face up to 60 years in prison.

While we DO NOT condone or support any violent crime, let alone this particular event, we believe that this crime is a symptom of a greater, and deeper social issue: mental illness. We believe that Morgan is a child with mental illness who needs help, not exile.

Morgan Geyser’s supporters minimize the danger she poses to the community, emphasizing that she has not been violent while in custody and that she has no history of violent behavior.

Well, except for the one piece of her history when she stabbed her friend.

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You won’t find any petitions in support of James Holmes on Change.org.  The now 27 year old hasn’t gotten a lot of positive PR.

Nevertheless, James Holmes, like Morgan Geyser, had a relatively stable, ordinary background before the offense.  He had no known criminal record prior to the 2012 shootings.  The son of a mathematician and a registered nurse, Holmes earned a degree in neuroscience and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the field.  He was a bright student, liked sports, and went to church.

Psychiatric evaluations revealed that Holmes may have experienced auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions, depression, and other worrisome symptoms since his early teen years.   Holmes and his defense counsel claim that he warrants a diagnosis of schizophrenia.  The prosecution contends that “schizotypal personality disorder” is the appropriate diagnosis.  After his arrest, Holmes remained depressed.  He attempted suicide several times while in custody.

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So, here’s a rough tally.  Both Morgan Geyser and James Holmes may be cases of serious mental illness with an early onset in childhood or early adolescence.  Though experts disagree about the details in each case, both seem to have experienced symptoms associated with schizophrenia, including delusions and hallucinations.  They each planned to kill, then acted on their plans.  Both had some scary notebooks.

What if the biggest difference between the two is that Geyser’s condition led her to commit violence a few years earlier in her life than Holmes’s did in his?  If schizophrenia or related disorders are susceptible to effective management when diagnosed and treated properly, then why should one early-onset schizophrenic offender be treated so differently than another?  Are we okay with a criminal justice system that can yield such different outcomes for two individuals who are so similar?

So, how old does a homicidal schizophrenic person need to be before society stops offering mercy, or at least meaningful treatment?  Comparing the cases of Morgan Geyser and James Holmes may not answer the question after all.  If anything, the comparison provides more vexing questions.

Main image Cloth embroidered by a schizophrenia sufferer Wikimedia

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Bob
    16 July 2015 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    Tamara,

    “Prosecutors charged Geyser with one count of intentional first-degree homicide.”

    I seem to remember from law school that someone has to die for it to be homicide. Otherwise, it would be “attempted” homicide.

  • Katie
    18 July 2015 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    There’s a significant difference between adults and children who kill/try to kill: Children have a MUCH greater potential for rehabilitation (and a correspondingly low rate of recidividism). Child murderesses are exceedingly rare and, according to research, can be rehabilitated.

    The brains of kids are fundamentally different than the brains of adults. Even the Supreme Court has recognized that. Morgan Geyser deserves treatment and a shot at rehabilitation. The juvenile justice system has mechanisms for keeping tabs on her/keeping her in custody until she’s 23 — plenty long enough to see if she’s rehabilitated!

    Full disclosure: The death penalty is barbaric, in my opinion, and should be abolished. Period. At a bare minimum, if we are going to be a barbaric nation and kill people, at a bare minimum, children and the mentally ill should be exempt from it.

  • Laura Holloway
    29 July 2015 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    The age does really matter to me: both people are clearly a danger to society and neither should ever be free again. But Mercy? Yes on both counts. They should both be kept safe and comfortble and given care. A civil society does not punish people for being ill, even when that illness has horrifying consequences. They should be lock away from society because we have that responsibility: the responsibility to protect members of society from dangerous people. But Holmes and Geyser are also members of society, and we also have a responsibility to them. They are unwell, violent, possibly remorseless killers (or, in the case of Geyser, would-be killers), and they should not be let loose among us. Ever. But we can – and should – do that compassionately.

    Also, like Katie, I am also vehemently opposed to the death penalty in general and specifically with regard to children and the mentally ill.