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'How do you sleep at night?'; Public defenders defend their role in criminal justice

The accused gunman in the grocery store shooting will be represented by Colorado State Public Defenders. We asked what the process looks like for those attorneys.

DENVER — The first court appearance for the accused Boulder grocery store shooter will also be the last for a while.

His Colorado State Public Defenders have asked for two or three months to "fully assess (his) mental illness," though public defender Kathryn Herold did not provide any proof of mental illness.

"It's really important in our system that he understands what he's being criminally charged with," said Andrew Ho, a defense attorney and former public defender. "It'd be impossible to hold somebody accountable if they're mentally incapable and wholly unaware of what is being done."

On Monday, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa was charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder of a second Boulder Police Officer.

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Before the case can proceed, his attorneys need to know he understands what is happening, which is determined through a mental health evaluation.

"Primarily they're going to be asking questions such as, 'Do you know who the judge is? What is the role of a judge? Do you know what criminal proceedings look like?'" said Ho. "Basically, the mental health expert is trying to determine, does this individual in front of me understand the proceedings."

This is the same process that took place in the case against accused Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Dear. His 2015 case has not progressed since he was deemed incompetent to stand trial.

"This delay is not to determine whether or not he had mental capacity at the time of the event, rather, in order to determine the competency of an individual, it's today. As of today, what is your mental health like?" said Ho.

In the Aurora Theater shooting trial, that shooter was deemed to be competent to stand trial, but after another mental health evaluation about his mindset on the day of the crime, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. First, the court needs to determine the Boulder shooter is competent to stand trial, which is a different evaluation than insanity as a defense.

A former Aurora theater shooting case prosecutor suggested that a district attorney's office should monitor the suspect during this time, to be able to prove sanity in court. The prosecutor said he would make sure that he could access cameras showing the defendant in jail to see if he eats his food or throws it against a wall, find out which books he is requesting to read and gather any other evidence that could show a jury his demeanor and behavior in jail to challenge an insanity defense.

"There have been times where I have talked to a client initially and felt that they were completely competent, only later to realize from their actions or words that I over spoke and that I needed to have them looked at," said 9NEWS legal analyst Scott Robinson. "In a case like this, where there does not seem to be any recognizable motive, the decision to seek the competency evaluation would seem almost necessary to a proper defense of anyone charged with this type of crime."

Robinson, a defense attorney, has often had to defend himself.

"The most common question asked of defense attorneys is, 'How can you represent someone that you know to be guilty?' And the answer is, to the best of your ability, using legitimate defenses and providing only truthful testimony," said Robinson.

Asked in a less politically correct way, some attorneys hear, 'How do you sleep at night?'

"It becomes difficult to sleep at night if you are willing to sacrifice our Constitutional principles for certain individuals just because of what they're accused of," said Ho.

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