As expected, accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity today, and a judge accepted the plea—setting the stage for a mental evaluation that could take months. Holmes' lawyers repeatedly have said he is mentally ill, but they delayed the insanity plea while arguing state laws were unconstitutional. They said the laws could hobble the defense if Holmes' case should ever reach the phase where the jury decides if he should be executed. The judge rejected that argument last week.
The insanity plea is widely seen as Holmes' best chance of avoiding execution, and possibly his only chance, given the weight of the evidence against him. If jurors find Holmes not guilty by reason of insanity, he would be committed indefinitely to the state mental hospital. He could eventually be released if doctors find his sanity has been restored, but that is considered unlikely. If jurors convict him, the next step is the penalty phase; if they impose the death penalty rather than life in prison, it would trigger court appeals and open other possibilities that would take years to resolve.