When someone commits a senseless act of violence such as opening fire in a grocery store full of shoppers on a Monday afternoon, people search for answers about whether anyone missed warning signs and could have done anything to prevent the act.
A 2018 assault case in which the man charged in connection with last week’s mass shooting attack at a Boulder King Soopers, 21-year-old Ahmad Alissa, beat a fellow student at Arvada West High School might in hindsight look like missed foreshadowing. Alissa pled guilty to third-degree assault in a 2017 incident, and he received a sentence of one year of probation and 48 hours of community service.
At the time, Alissa said the victim had called him racial slurs and bullied Alissa to his breaking point, while the victim has maintained the attack was unprovoked.
One of Alissa’s brothers has said in interviews with other news outlets he believes Alissa showed signs of mental illness and paranoia, believing he was watched and followed. And one of his public defenders made a statement during his initial court appearance last week referencing supposed mental illness. These types of statements might raise questions about whether it might have played a role in the 2017 assault of his classmate.
To be clear, defense attorneys have not elaborated on Alissa’s supposed mental illness, saying only in his initial appearance they plan to evaluate its “needs and depth.” The 2018 case file hasn’t provided clues about whether Alissa suffered from mental illness at the time, and attorneys who spoke to The Denver Gazette weren’t opining on whether Alissa has any mental illness that may have played a role in last week’s mass attack or his previous assault case.
But they tended to agree that the circumstances of Alissa’s previous case, a third-degree misdemeanor, probably weren’t conducive to picking up on any mental illness if he suffered from it at the time, making it difficult to point to the case as a warning sign of last week’s shooting attack Alissa is now accused for.
Alissa did not have an attorney in that case, for example, usually the party who will raise the issue of a defendant’s mental illness. But even if a defendant does have a defense attorney, cases involving low-level offenses that may not involve a lot of contact with defendants typically aren’t conducive to establishing a baseline of their patterns of behavior that could give clues of mental illness, said Ridley McGreevy & Winocur’s Kevin McGreevy, who is also a former state public defender.
He added an attorney may also be reluctant to raise the issue of a defendant’s mental health in a misdemeanor case because doing so may have outsized consequences for the defendant in terms of arduous requirements for mental health testing and evaluations that inevitably stretch out the case, and may not change the outcome.
“And there’s a big difference between third-degree assault … versus first-degree murder, which is with intent after deliberation,” McGreevy said. “And so the degree of mental process is also different. Although that shouldn’t make a difference, I think that that sometimes does.”
A defendant’s mental illness can be relevant to their case’s proceedings in a few distinct ways: As a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, or as competency, which relates to a defendant’s capacity to stand trial based on their ability to understand the charges against them and to participate in their own defense.
Alissa’s public defenders have not made any direct references in court to either path.
Attorneys with experience in criminal defense also said someone living with a mental illness doesn’t necessarily exhibit obvious signs the average person may think of when they picture serious mental illness, such as statements and behavior suggesting someone is detached from reality.
Criminal defense attorney Iris Eytan of Eytan Nielsen said outlandish or psychotic behavior and statements in reality don’t necessarily precede someone’s act of mass violence.
“And that’s what makes (not guilty by reason of insanity) cases so hard to prove to a jury,” Eytan said. “They buy into it only if they can see a serious history and pattern of hospitalizations, of reported conduct; suspensions; expulsions; criminal charges where it’s been discussed.”
That also would make it faulty to assume that Alissa would have exhibited any behavior during the proceedings of his assault case to raise alarm bells for the judge or prosecutor had he suffered from mental illness.
Kristen Nelson, a former public defender who worked on the defense team for James Holmes in his trial for the 2012 Aurora theater massacre, said a person’s behavior that seems bizarre, irrational or otherwise lacking a motive can jump out as a red flag about the person’s mental health.
But on the other side of the coin, she said symptoms of mental illness can in turns fade and resurface, meaning a person’s illness won’t necessarily be immediately apparent, and they may frequently come across as lucid and rational.
“There’s a very wide range (of symptoms), and one of the things I learned working on the Holmes case is that symptoms of mental illness can wax and wane,” said Nelson, who is now director of The Powell Project. “Whenever you’re representing somebody who you suspect may have a serious mental illness, you can’t just go in, meet the person once and have it all figured out. Oftentimes it’s a process that unfolds, and it depends very much on the symptoms the person is experiencing at the time.”
And a judge’s order in Alissa’s assault case filed in April 2018 directing him to seek treatment for his response to anger is likely a red herring in looking for any clues of mental illness in that case, attorneys said.
“In a physical assault case at a misdemeanor level, it’s really common for judges to order an anger management class or set of classes,” said McGreevy.
The Denver Gazette has requested a transcript of Alissa’s sentencing hearing to see if he or the victim made statements. Probation case files are confidential save for pleadings or documents filed in the person’s related criminal case, according to a state chief justice directive.
Eytan added that court-ordered anger management classes aren’t designed to examine a person’s mental health.
“They’re giving you tools and tricks of the trade on how to avoid getting angry; how to walk out; how to hold your tongue; what you need to do when you’re feeling like that; what are your triggers and how do you get out of that. You’re not getting into the person’s mental health or their mental status,” Eytan said. “They don’t get after the cause, and so you’re not getting from people an individualized story about why they committed the act.”