TIP SHEET: Mental health and society expert can comment on Holmes sentence

Dr. Jonathan Metzl, Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology Director, Center for Medicine, Health, and Society Professor of Psychiatry

Jurors in the James Holmes trial had to contend with a life-or-death decision about criminality and mental illness based on information about which even highly qualified legal and mental health experts do not agree, said a professor from Vanderbilt University.

Holmes’ sentencing trial moved Aug. 3 into the phase where jurors must make the decision between life imprisonment and the death penalty on charges related to the deaths of 12 people and wounding of 70 others in a Colorado movie theater in 2012.

“U.S. popular culture consistently associates severe mental illness with violence and aggression, and these associations are given even more authority in the aftermath of mass shootings,” says Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt.

“Yet research consistently shows that assumptions about insane violence are often based on stereotypes. As an aggregate group, people with mental illness are overwhelmingly more likely to be the victims of violence, including gun violence, rather than the perpetrators of it.”

None of this excuses Holmes’ actions, Metzl says.

“But if a man who is revealed over the course of the proceedings to have been severely mentally ill when he committed a crime is put to death, then the legacy of an unconscionable act of savagery will be marred by one final act of barbarism.”

To reach Jonathan Metzl, contact Jim Patterson at jim.patterson@vanderbilt.edu or 615-322-NEWS.