Ben Dreyfuss

Engagement Editor

Ben Dreyfuss is the engagement editor at Mother Jones. He's done some other stuff, too. You can email him at bendreyfuss@motherjones.com. But you don't have to. But you can. But you really don't have to. 

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BREAKING: James Holmes Found Guilty in Aurora Massacre Trial

Jury finds he wasn't insane when he killed 12 in a Colorado movie theater.

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 6:32 PM EDT

Three years after he killed 12 people and injured 70 more in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, a jury has found James Holmes guilty of first degree murder.

The jury concluded that Holmes was not legally insane at the time he committed the crimes, despite evidence of mental illness. Holmes' mental state will come into play again in the penalty phase of the trial, in which jurors will hear testimony and decide whether he is eligible for execution.

Which raises the question: How crazy is too crazy to be executed? Here's how capital defense lawyer and occasional Mother Jones contributor Marc Bookman put it in a remarkable essay with precisely that title:

There is no simple answer to this question. State courts across the country have struggled to define "intellectual disability" (also known as mental retardation) since 2002, when the Supreme Court ruled that retarded people are exempt from capital punishment. The high court has also banned the execution of anyone who was under 18 at the time of his crime, but no court has ruled that severe mental illness makes a person ineligible for the death penalty.

The Supreme Court's latest foray into the issue involved the case of Scott Louis Panetti, another Texas death row inmate. Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who killed his in-laws, defended himself in court wearing a purple cowboy suit. As if that weren't enough, he asked to subpoena Jesus, John F. Kennedy, and the pope. While the justices didn't offer any clear standard on how crazy is too crazy, they suggested that severe mental illness might render someone's "perception of reality so distorted" that he cannot be constitutionally executed.

As it stands, a person cannot be put to death if he or she is deemed "insane," but that's a narrow legal distinction. Whether at trial or on the eve of execution, an insanity defense hinges on a defendant's inability to connect his crime with the consequences. Absent that connection, neither deterrence nor retribution is served by execution. As the legal scholar Sir William Blackstone put it more than 200 years ago, madness is its own punishment.

Almost every state now utilizes some version of what is known as the M'Naghten Rule. Daniel M'Naghten, an Englishman, was put on trial in 1843 for fatally shooting a civil servant he apparently mistook for the prime minister. He had delusions of persecution, and a number of doctors testified that he was unable to hold himself back. When the prosecution produced no witness to say otherwise, M'Naghten was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent most of the rest of his life at the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum in London's Bethlem Royal Hospital, which locals pronounced "Bedlam."

Thus was coined a word we associate with chaos—and it was chaos that ensued when M'Naghten was acquitted and the public took the verdict poorly. What emerged amid the outcry was the generally applied law that an insanity defense would only be available to someone who cannot understand the "nature and quality" of his act.

In a more recent piece focusing on the Panetti case, staff reporter Stephanie Mencimer digs deeper into the high court's thinking, and demonstrates in a followup analysis why it is so difficult, once a case gets to this stage, to reverse momentum toward a verdict of death.

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The New York Stock Exchange Just Halted Trading and No One Is Sure Why

What is going on?

| Wed Jul. 8, 2015 12:07 PM EDT
Screenshot of the New York Stock Exchange status webpage

This is crazy:

Trading in all symbols was temporarily halted on the New York Stock Exchange floor Wednesday due to an apparent technical issue.

"NYSE/NYSE MKT has temporarily suspended trading in all symbols. Additional information will follow as soon as possible," the NYSE said in a statement on its status page.

The exchange was investigating the issue that caused the halt, Reuters reported, citing a source. Trading stopped around 11:30 a.m. ET.

The NYSE said all open orders would be cancelled, according to Reuters. The NYSE is having some sort of technical problem and all trading has been halted.

The Nasdaq appears to be fine.

UPDATE, 12:18pm ET: Law enforcement officials tell CBS "no indication of any threats":

UPDATE 2, 12:34pm ET: NYSE says it's not "a cyber breach."

UPDATE 3, 1:13pm ET: And answers begin to trickle in…

UPDATE 4, 2:10pm ET: The stoppage is almost over.

UPDATE 5, 2:57pm ET: Our national nightmare is almost over...

Donald Trump's Latest Dumb Press Release Will Make You Glad Donald Trump Writes His Own Press Releases

"The greatest thing ever."

| Tue Jul. 7, 2015 6:20 PM EDT

Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.

Update, 6:48pm ET: Keen-eyed Mother Jones editor Ian Gordon has found the real scandal:

I Can't Stop Laughing At This Vine of a Little Kid Dunking a Basketball

Stay for the end!

| Tue Jul. 7, 2015 3:23 PM EDT

If it makes me a bad person to laugh at this Vine, then I guess I'm a bad person.

(via Deadspin)

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