Judge Brian Hill concluded that Nicolas Holzer was seriously mentally ill, delusional, and psychotic when he killed his parents, two sons, and family dog four years ago, but that he could still tell the difference between right and wrong. That’s a key element of the definition of insanity under California law; with that finding, Hill ruled Holzer was guilty of a quadruple homicide and would be sentenced accordingly on August 24. The ruling came at the end of an engrossing, horrifying, and hard-fought, month-long trial between two exceptionally skilled attorneys. Holzer had admitted the killing from the start of the case. The only mystery was why.
Holzer told investigators and a host of psychiatrists and mental-health professionals that he killed his family because “It was something I had to do.” Holzer believed he was the most evil person on the planet — suffering from a delusion that he was responsible for multiple mass atrocities, including the deaths caused by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. To protect his family from the same eternity in hell he believed awaited him, he explained, he had to kill them.
Two years after the murders and while incarcerated, Holzer first advanced the explanation to mental-health professionals that he was acting upon orders from God. Prosecutor Ron Zonen questioned why Holzer waited so long before mentioning God. Defense attorney Christine Voss countered that Holzer had made 57 allusions to the almighty without mentioning him by name. Who but God, she asked, could damn him? Hill cited the after-the-fact timing of this revelation, calling it both “suspicious and convenient.”
Hill said he was convinced that Holzer suffered a serious debilitating mental illness that started in 1995, which he noted had waxed and waned explosively and episodically since. Hill said he was struck by a few exchanges between Holzer and the first detectives who interviewed him the night of the killing in which Holzer explained, “I thought that’s what I had to do because I’m so evil. That’s the last evil thing I’d have to do before being taken away.” In the same interview, Holzer said he had to work himself up into killing his parents. Both these exchanges, Hill stated, illustrated that Holzer knew what he felt he had to do — however delusional — was in fact wrong.
Hill took note of the avalanche of detailed and conflicting mental-health testimony presented throughout the trial from multiple experts. There was significant disagreement among them as to the nature of Holzer’s diagnoses; there was even sharper disagreement whether Holzer was too psychotic at the time of the killing to discern right from wrong. Some said he could; others — typically those who treated him — insisted he couldn’t. The two forensic examiners appointed by Hill both testified he was sane.
Now that Holzer has been declared legally sane, it’s all but certain he will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Had he been deemed insane, Holzer would most likely have been sent to a forensic psychiatric hospital run by the State of California.