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Some see accused killer James Holmes as the face of evil

Updated: August 25, 2012 6:17AM

Some will see the images of accused Colorado mass killer James Holmes in court Monday and feel certain they are gazing on the face of evil.

And who could deny it?

Certainly, it is the face of a man who has committed tremendous evil — if Holmes is indeed the person who opened fire in a Aurora, Colo., movie theater Friday night, and there’s no reason to believe otherwise.

Twelve dead. Fifty-eight wounded. The act speaks for itself. I’d call it unimaginable evil except that our capacity to imagine these things may no longer have limits.

So when we see Holmes in court ­— the shocking orange-red dyed hair, the dazed eyes, the creepy vacant expression — the natural reaction is to think: That’s it. That’s the face of evil.

Or is it the face of madness?

And are the two mutually exclusive?

I’m not trying to be cute. It’s something I think about from time to time: the nature of evil. Is it real? Can it be discerned by the magnitude of a crime — or the nature of the crime?

Many experienced police detectives will tell you there absolutely is such a thing as evil in the world, and that they have not only seen its effects but sensed its presence in their interrogation rooms when dealing with certain criminal suspects.

I imagine it’s the sort of thing you’re more likely to sense when you already know — or believe you know — what crimes the individual has committed.

While I usually occupy myself with our white-collar political criminals, I venture forth into the realm of life and death crime often enough to have some opinions.

For most of Monday I was down in Will County for the first day of jury selection in the long-awaited murder trial of Drew Peterson, accused of the bathtub drowning death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio — and suspected but never charged in the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy.

Many would tell you Peterson is the face of evil, or at least one of them — even the older, puffier clean-shaven face that Peterson presented to prospective jurors as he introduced himself to them as “Mr. Peterson.”

The alleged cover-up involved in Savio’s death speaks to a capacity for evil that to my mind is practically as chilling as someone who can pull the trigger on a semi-automatic weapon in a crowded theater.

Yet there is still considerable doubt as to whether Will County State’s Attorney William Glasgow has the case to convict Peterson — with the admissibility of some hearsay testimony still to be determined.

The one time I felt certain I was in the presence of evil was during the trial of Marilyn Lemak, the Naperville mother convicted of feeding anti-depressants laced with peanut butter to her three young children and then suffocating them with her hands — to get back at her husband.

While the crime was obviously abhorrent, equally frightening was the physical metamorphosis Lemak underwent afterward — as if she had shrunk into herself. Being in her presence in the courtroom, I had the sense of a person possessed by the devil — and I don’t normally believe in that kind of thing.

Intertwined with madness

Of course, Lemak also was clearly suffering from a severe mental illness, and she mounted an insanity defense that the jury discarded. I always wondered whether her transformation was a result of the same madness that caused her to do great evil or the result of the horror of knowing what she had done.

Fast forward a few years to a packed Lake County courtroom for an initial appearance by Jerry Hobbs, who prosecutors said had confessed to the stabbing deaths of two little girls, one of them his daughter.

As with James Holmes on Monday, everyone in the courtroom wanted to see for themselves the kind of person who could do such a thing, and if ever I was expecting to see the face of evil, it was that day.

Instead, I saw a country bumpkin scared out of his wits. It would be years later when Hobbs, already having spent five years in prison, was exonerated by DNA evidence.

Back to my question about madness and evil being mutually exclusive. In Lemak’s case, I’d say they were not.

It’s also a possibility to be considered with James Holmes.

While possibly drugged in court Monday, Holmes appeared not quite certain as to even where he was, let alone being able to appreciate the seriousness of what he had done.

Would that make his actions any less evil? Not in my book.

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