Potential dangers of publishing mass killer's personal notebook

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Editor’s note:  CU News Corps, like many media outlets, has published the notebook in its entirety. Reporter Lo Snelgrove presents a different perspective on sharing this piece of evidence with the public. 

By Lo Snelgrove
CU News Corps 

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Today, the Arapahoe County Court released a photocopied, PDF version of the Aurora theater shooter’s personal notebook. Upon its release, multiple news organizations — including CU News Corps — published the entirety of the notebook online.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz said the release of this notebook to the public can do only harm.

“No good can come out of that kind of unfiltered dissemination of someone’s inner-most thoughts,” Dietz said.

Dietz does work for  the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and has participated in many high-profile cases, including those involving the assassination attempts on President Reagan and on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, more than 25 serial killer cases, the Unabomber case, and the Columbine High School shootings.

“…The (notebook’s) content will cause some readers, if only a small proportion, to say, ‘this guy is like me’. And when that happens in that small fraction of the readership, that identification…with the killer emboldens them and encourages them to consider similar action.”

Steve Zansberg, a Denver attorney who represents media companies in relation to this trial, said the court was being consistent in their legal promise to release to the media all non-graphic exhibits that jurors view. Zansberg also said the public has a right to see the notebook.

“The public should have access to these exhibits in a meaningful way,” Zansberg said.

Dietz, however, said that no positivity can be rendered by the notebook’s publication. Rather, he suggests, it should be reviewed by professionals with the intent of better understanding the defendant’s mind or mental illness in general.

Following the mass-murder in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater on July 20, 2012 that killed 12 and left 70 injured, there were multiple reports of potential copycat cases.

July 21, 2012: A man in Turnpike, Maine arrived armed with a gun to an afternoon showing of “The Dark Knight Rises”. When arrested, police found an assault rifle and several handguns, 10,000 rounds of ammunition and newspaper clippings about the Aurora theater shooting.

July 22, 2012: A man in Norwalk, Calif. made threats at a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” and verbally alluded to the Aurora shooting. Witnesses reported that the man said, “I should go off like in Colorado. Does anybody have a gun?”

July 25, 2012: A New York man who worked for the NYC Department of Education was arrested after telling police he was obsessed with the Colorado movie massacre. Authorities found photos of the Aurora theater shooter “all over (the man’s) desk”. The man told police that he sympathized with the killer.

July 26, 2012: A Maryland man went to his workplace, called himself “a Joker” and threatened to “shoot the place up.” At the man’s home police found 25 guns, including semi-automatic rifles and pistols. Prince George County Police said it was an attempted copycat of the Aurora theater shooting.

July 31, 2012: A Minnesota man was arrested after making repeated references to “the Joker” and the Aurora theater shooting, telling police he understood the shooter’s motives and planned to have his own killing spree.

Loren Coleman believes that because the notebook was released nearly three years after the massacre occurred, the likelihood of people being inspired by the writings is decreased. Coleman authored the book, “The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines”.

“…There is less danger that the James Holmes’ notebook will have a widespread copycat impact,” Coleman said. “That is, as long as the words of Holmes don’t become a media phenomena and go virtual via social media.”

On various blogging websites, some people actively express support and admiration for the Aurora theater shooter, and there is paraphernalia featuring his face and words for sale online. Dietz said these supporters are unlikely to pose a threat to public safety, and “what’s wrong with them is highly variable, mostly immaturity. Only a small fraction of them are dangerous.”

“(The notebook) may fuel the imagination of similarly situated people,” Dietz said. “I see it as part of a broader phenomenon that has to do with the search for identity among those whose character is insufficiently developed.”

The forensic psychiatrist explained that if the readers of the notebook mirror the general population, then with a million readers, “…there are 10,000 people in that group who are psychotic and 30,000 who are psychopathic. And of those 40,000 at-risk people only half of them are armed….and of that, maybe one person will go do something awful because they read this diary.”

But is one person too much?

“For me it is,” Dietz said.


Editor’s Note: CU News Corps will remember the victims of the tragedy with every post via this graphic.



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