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Dr. Jonathan Woodcock testifies that Aurora theater shooting gunman was 'severely mentally ill'

Posted at 3:34 PM, Jun 25, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-25 15:50:53-04

The defense team for James Holmes opened their first day of testimony with a doctor who had determined the gunman was "severely mentally ill" just four days after the mass shooting at the Aurora movie theater.

Holmes, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, was arrested just minutes after the shooting that killed 12 people and injured 70 others in the early morning of July 20, 2012.  

The admitted gunman appeared in court for the first time, with his infamous red-orange hair, on July 23. Dr. Jonathan Woodcock, a psychiatrist and neurologist, was hired by the defense to interview the gunman and did so the next day, on July 24.

"Having reviewed what my understanding was of why I went into see him, I first wanted to understand if he had a mental illness and then I wanted to understand how severe that was," Woodcock testified Thursday. "And then I wanted to understand what the category of the illness might be."

Woodcock was admitted as an expert witness in the trial Thursday morning, following a spirited cross-examination about his qualifications.

District Attorney George Brauchler pointed out that Woodcock is listed only on CU-Anschutz's faculty website under neurology and not psychiatry.

The DA also questioned how rarely Woodcock testifies in trials and how infrequently he has works published in journals. The doctor explained the latter by saying he is primarily a clinician and not an academic.

In the end, Brauchler probably left a lasting impression with the jury, but did not succeed in blocking his testimony.

Woodcock was allowed to testify about an interview he conducted in the Arapahoe County jail at the request of the defense team.

"It was my impression that he was mentally ill, that he was severely mentally ill, and that he had a psychotic illness," Woodcock summarized.

That statement is notably different than the conclusions reached by the two state-appointed psychiatrists, who both testified for the prosecution, saying that the gunman was legally sane at the time of the shooting. But they interviewed the gunman years after the shooting and while he was medicated.

Like those other doctors, however, Woodcock did say that all of the doctors' diagnoses of the gunman's condition were "in the same ballpark."

Woodcock explained that during the interview at the jail, he asked the gunman about his decision to leave school, his childhood and his symptoms.

"There were things about the grad program that made his symptoms worse and there were things about the symptoms that made him feel it was impossible to continue," Woodcock said.

He also testified the gunman expressed having both homicidal and suicidal thoughts. The defendant did not like either of those kinds of thoughts, Woodcock said, but found that focusing on ideas of homicide reduced the severity of suicidal thoughts.

Throughout the interview, Woodcock said he was focused on observing the organization of the defendant's thoughts and the appropriateness of his reactions. He says he identified "delusional content" in the gunman's thinking and a "mismatch" between the enormity of the crime and the emotions he showed.

"A tremendous emotional flattening," the doctor said. "His expression of emotion did not reflect his situation."

In fact, Woodcock also called that emotional flattening "extraordinary" and said it was a key factor in his opinion.

Woodcock's testimony continues after lunch.