Sentinel Blogs

Brandon Johansson

Reporter for the Aurora Sentinel, Brooding


The crowd in the gallery for the second day of the Aurora theater shooting trial has thinned some from yesterday.

On both the victim side and the media side of the courtroom there were a handful of empty seats this morning, though dozens more observers were watching a television feed from an overflow room.

Still, while the gallery crowd is smaller, the lawyers are working in a cramped space on the other side of the bar.

On the prosecution side, six lawyers, an Aurora police officer and an FBI agent are squeezed into three tables. On the other side, five defense lawyers, James Holmes and a defense investigator are squeezed into two tables.

There are three uniformed deputies positioned on that side of the bar, too, as well as three court staffers, a court recorder and the judge.

That fit is made even more snug because the court doubled the size of the jury box to make room for 24 jurors — a figure that includes 12 alternates.

This morning, before the judge took the stand, two prosecutors, Lisa Teesch-McGuire and Karen Pearson, battled with a lectern as they tried to wrangle it to the side to make room for witnesses approaching the witness stand.

Things could get more crowded as the trial goes on, too. So far, just one large piece of evidence — a model of the theater that looks to measure about 4-feet by 4-feet — is sitting in some of the empty space. As they introduce more exhibits, the judge said some will go on a sort of shelf behind the witness stand.

The atmosphere has been emotional for much of the hearing today, but the victims have followed the judge’s order and avoided any emotional outbursts. While many have wept quietly — especially when the 911 tapes from inside the theater that night were played — nobody has stormed out or sobbed loudly.

The jurors are keeping it together, too. One juror in particular appeared to be on the verge of tears during the 911 tape this morning.

And the jurors are paying pretty close attention, too. At least 10 of the 24 have taken a few notes, and one woman has taken notes almost the entire time witnesses have testified. The jurors are allowed to take notes, but the notes can’t leave the courtroom and the judge has told them to rely on their memory over the notes whenever they can.

The jurors have also asked questions of the witnesses. They asked Muni Gravelly if she heard the shooter say anything or if she saw the shooter. She said no to both. The jurors asked Gravelly a third question, but Judge Carlos Samour Jr. said the question wasn’t appropriate and didn’t say in court what the question was.

The jurors later asked Chichi Spruel how long it took police to arrive after she called 911. She said it seemed like a long time in that moment, but looking back the response was actually pretty quick.

The jurors also appeared to be trying to get a question to Judge Samour during Katie Medley’s testimony, but they didn’t get his attention before Medley stepped down from the stand.

Court gavels back in at 1:25 p.m. Check the live blog and Twitter for updates throughout the afternoon.

A preliminary artist sketch of James Holmes, with gray jacket and glasses.

Notes by reporter Brandon Johansson from the first day of the Aurora theater shooting trial of James Holmes as the long process of jury selection gets underway:

3:39 p.m. 

CENTENNIAL | Among the first wave of prospective jurors in the Aurora theater shooting trial to report to court Tuesday, three checked their phones, and one fell asleep — maybe.

Another three were dismissed because they no longer live in Arapahoe County, two because they had a note from their doctor and another whose address is actually in Elbert County despite what Arapahoe records said.

In those six cases, Judge Carlos Samour Jr. said the jurors were not supposed to be dismissed, but instead the jury commissioner was supposed to send him their proof of residency so the prosecution and defense could chime in as to how to handle them.

A preliminary artist sketch of James Holmes, with gray jacket and glasses.

Another juror appeared in court early Tuesday and was mistakenly sent to another courtroom that was preparing for jury selection. That juror was dismissed by another judge and Samour said he would let that judge’s dismissal stand.

As for the jurors who may have used their phones, prosecutors noted to the judge that one of their staffers saw them use their phone while in court, but they didn’t ask that the judge take any action.

And then there was the juror who a prosecution staffer said might have fallen asleep.

Judge Samour seemed confused as to whether the prosecution thought the prospective juror did or did not fall asleep.

Deputy District Attorney Rich Orman said he couldn’t be sure.

“There were certain times when I was growing up that my mom thought I was asleep and I wasn’t,” Orman said. “So you never know.”

The first wave of jurors were filling out their lengthy jury questionnaire Tuesday afternoon and the two sides are expected to receive the completed questionnaires around noon on Wednesday.

2:50 p.m.

CENTENNIAL | The first wave of potential jurors in the Aurora theater shooting trial were warned Tuesday to steer clear of any news reports or conversations about the case.

Judge Carlos Samour, Jr. — reading the same prepared remarks he is expected to read to as many 7,000 prospective jurors in the coming months — told the group that steering clear of any discussion of the case is a daunting task, but one they need to stick to.

The initial group Tuesday was expected to include between 130 and 150 prospective jurors.

Samour also told the jurors that they are not allowed to visit any of the locations connected to the case, including the movie theater where James Holmes is accused of killing 12 and wounding 70 more in July 2012.

The prospective jurors are expected to begin filling out their questionnaires this afternoon.

More jurors are scheduled to report to court tomorrow morning and afternoon, with two sessions nearly every day until a jury of 24 is seated.

Holmes sat quietly at the defense table, leaning back in his chair throughout the first session.

11:40 a.m.

CENTENNIAL | Court officials expect between 130 and 150 jurors to report to court Tuesday afternoon for the first day of jury selection in the Aurora theater shooting trial.

In court Tuesday morning, Judge Carlos Samour, Jr. said that while court officials have called 250 people to appear, only 188 of that initial group remain eligible. Some potential jurors have been dismissed because they have connections to people involved in the trial, and Samour said other summonses were undeliverable.

The first session is set to start at 1 p.m.

At each session, Samour said he expects between 130 and 150 prospective jurors will report.

After sending out a total of 9,000 summonses, Samour said there are about 7,000 potential jurors remaining in the pool.

When the jurors report, they will hear a 30-minute introductory speech from Samour, watch an 18-minute video that all jurors in the state watch and then receive their juror questionnaires.

According to court documents, the questionnaire includes 75 questions, but in court Tuesday, Samour said the questionnaire has 77 questions.

With that many questions, Samour said he expects some prospective jurors to need more than two hours to complete it, while others could finish in about 45 minutes.

“It is difficult to tell how long it’s going to take them to fill it out,” he said.

In an October order laying out the final version, Samour bluntly admitted that at 75 questions, it was lengthy.

“The questionnaire is extensive,” he wrote.

Karen Steinhauser, a former prosecutor who now teaches law at University of Denver Sturm College of Law, said jury questionnaires often try to extract some personal information about the jurors — including their personal experiences with mental illness, law enforcement or other extremely private issues.

Because of that, the questionnaires are rarely, if ever, seen by the public.

“When we are asking jurors for a lot of very personal and sensitive information, the goal is that the information be between the judge and the attorneys,” she said.

Steinhauser said she has tried cases where after the lawyers were done reviewing prospective juror’s answers, they were required to return the answers to the court.

In this case, Samour has ordered the two sides to destroy the questionnaires — including any electronic copies — once they are done with them.

In his opening remarks to jurors — a final version of which were released this month — Samour will tell them they should answer honestly and in detail because those that don’t fill the questionnaires out in detail stand a better chance of being called back for individual questioning.

From February through May, Samour said some jurors will be dismissed and others will be called back for a second round of questioning as the court tries to whittle the pool to 100 to 120 potential jurors.

That group will be called back a third time in May or June for a two-day group questioning session, he said.

But, Samour said, those are only hopeful estimates.

“It is very difficult to estimate how long the process of selecting 24 jurors will take. Our best estimate is that it will take us until approximately May or June to select a jury,” he said.

The trial itself — including a possible death penalty phase — will then run from May or June into September or October, he said.

10:20 a.m.

CENTENNIAL | The judge in the Aurora theater trial abruptly ended a hearing about videotape evidence from the Arapahoe County Jail on Tuesday, citing concerns that testimony could taint the jury pool.

It wasn’t clear from testimony Tuesday what the videotape evidence shows, other than that it shows Holmes in the jail sometime after being booked in July 2012. Holmes’ defense team said jail staff deleted some video without checking with them first.

The defense asked for the hearing after they said jail staff failed to turn over some video evidence until Jan. 9, 2015, months after they had asked for it and just a few weeks before the trial is set to start.

With the first wave of prospective jurors set to report to court Tuesday afternoon, Judge Carlos Samour, Jr. said he would like to wait to finish the hearing until after jurors have received the initial admonishment about avoiding media coverage of the trial.

With 9,000 prospective jurors called — and with about 7,000 expected to report — Samour said the process could take several weeks.

Tuesday afternoon marks the first time Holmes will appear in court in the presence of potential jurors, so he is allowed to wear civilian clothes. He sat quietly next to his lawyers on Tuesday morning wearing a black blazer, a blue and white striped shirt and khaki pants.

Unlike previous hearings, where Holmes appeared wearing a jail jumpsuit with his hands and feet shackled, Holmes’ hands were not cuffed at the start of the hearing. His left leg, however, was chained to the defense table with a cable that was hidden from the jury’s view.

The first prospective jurors are scheduled to report to the courthouse at 1 p.m.

8:30 a.m. CENTENNIAL | Jury selection in the Aurora theater shooting trial is set to start Tuesday afternoon after a brief morning hearing on evidence recently turned over to the defense.

The accused gunman, James Holmes, is due in court at 9 a.m. for a hearing about a videotape that prosecutors recently gave to the defense.

It isn’t clear what the videotape shows, and Tuesday’s hearing likely won’t shed light on it. In a heavily-redacted order last week setting Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Carlos Samour, Jr. ordered the two sides not to discuss details about the videotape in open court.

The defense contends the tape should have been turned over to them sooner.

Holmes is accused of killing 12 and injuring 70 more during a July 2012 shooting rampage at an Aurora movie theater. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Starting Tuesday afternoon the first 250 of 9,000 prospective jurors will report to court. Jury selection is expected top last several months with opening statements starting in May or June.

7:30 a.m.

Quiet so far. Just a few members of the media here to pick up credentials.

James Holmes’ trial will likely stretch from now until August, lawyers said previously.

Judge Carlos Samour said he plans to select 24 jurors, a number that includes 12 alternates.

Two dozen jurors is an uncommonly large number — typical murder trials in Arapahoe County often have just a few alternates in addition to 12 jurors —  but Samour said it is necessary.

There is a motions hearing slated for this morning, and the first prospective jurors appear at 2 p.m.

A rendering of the race car that will be on display tomorrow at the Colorado Freedom Memorial. Phoeo courtesy Colorado Freedom Memorial.

As you might expect with Memorial Day just a week away, there’s plenty happening at the Colorado Freedom Memorial.

For one, the memorial, 756 Telluride St., near Beck Recreation Center and Buckley Air Force Base, will host Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 Chevrolet from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday.

A rendering of the race car that will be on display tomorrow at the Colorado Freedom Memorial. Phoeo courtesy Colorado Freedom Memorial.

Martin Truex, Jr. will race the car, which has the Colorado Freedom Memorial logo emblazoned on its hood, at this weekend’s 55th Annual Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The car is part of the Denver-Based Furniture Row NASCAR Racing Team.

The event is timed so personnel at Buckley Air Force Base can check out the car before it heads to North Carolina for the race.

And, fans of local craft beer can celebrate the memorial this week, too. Last week, Aurora’s Dry Dock Brewing unveiled Colorado Freedom Memorial Blonde Ale. For every bottle sold, Dry Dock is donating $1 to the memorial. Score a bottle at Chambers Liquors in Aurora and they’ll also chip in 50 cents per bottle for the memorial.

If the very-American combo of craft beer, NASCAR, and the freedom memorial doesn’t spike something very patriotic in you this week, nothing will.

— Brandon Johansson, staff writer

Water gushes out of a fire hydrant May 7 near I-225 and East Mississippi Avenue. During the massive droughts in 2003 and 2004, water officials looked into ways to recapture water in scenarios like this, but determined it wasn’t worth the cost to capture the water and transport it somewhere else.  (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

The Cache La Village Inn is set to run dry later today.

For the past day and a half, a fire hydrant in the parking behind the Village Inn at Interstate 225 and East Mississippi Avenue has run nonstop — dumping more than 38,000 of gallons into the gutter.

We got a call in the newsroom about the free-flowing hydrant this afternoon from an Aurora man perturbed that in a city where water department officials regularly bang the conservation drum, the city seemed to be dumping gallons upon gallons of water.

The man said the hydrant had been gushing for three days, but water officials told me this afternoon that it had been running since about 6:15 a.m. Tuesday, dumping about 20 gallons per minute.

Greg Baker at Aurora Water said the water department popped open the hydrant to relieve pressure further down the line. The pressure had to be relieved as part of the ongoing construction along I-225, Baker told me, and the hydrant should be closed today.

During the massive droughts in 2003 and 2004, Baker said water officials looked into ways to recapture water in scenarios like this, but determined it wasn’t worth the cost to capture the water and transport it somewhere else. Plus, Baker said, the water eventually flows into rivers and streams where the city can eventually treat it and re-use it.

— Brandon Johansson, staff writer

The relationship between the police and the media can be a touchy one. While the two sides often rely on each other — reporters need the cops to answer our calls, cops often need us to get their message out — the at-times symbiotic relationship is prone to trouble.

Usually, the flare-ups in these otherwise-friendly relationships are limited to an angry phone call or stern talking to at some dull meeting.

But for Aurora police and a Denver TV station, those troubles are playing out on social media.

Aurora police on Monday took the rare step of using the department’s official Facebook page to publicly lambast KMGH Channel 7 for the station’s handling of a couple stories.

Below is a link to the lengthy post, but to sum it up, Aurora police got mad at the TV reporters when they hounded a sergeant who didn’t want to talk. After that, it seems APD wouldn’t answer pretty basic questions from the station, so Channel 7 let their readers know that.

https://www.facebook.com/notes/aurora-police-department/response-to-coverage-of-aurora-police-department-by-channel-7-denver-news/469569563087958

When I reached an official at Channel 7 on Wednesday, they declined to comment.

The spat provides a rare window for the public into how the press and police interact.

My guess is this blows over fairly soon. We’ve been embroiled in similar spats with Aurora police and others in the past, and they usually end peacefully after a short freeze-out and a brief “airing of grievances” by the two sides.

Even on a day filled with heartbreaking stories, the occasional bit of good news pokes through.

As our photographer Marla Keown and I headed back this afternoon from Gateway High School — where we tried talk to people connected to Friday’s movie theater massacre — we spotted some of that good news.

Perched on top of an electrical box under a sweltering sun, 11-year-old Brendon Hutchinson was clutching a bright yellow sign at East Exposition Avenue and South Sable Boulevard.

The sign said: “Thoughts and prayers with everyone impacted by this tragedy.” In the corner, it said “R.I.P.”

The intersection is just a stone’s throw from the Century 16 Theater where 12 people were killed and another 59 wounded when a gunman opened fire on a crowded movie theater.

Hutchinson, who lives in the area and said he goes to movies at Century, said he decided to head to the intersection to show some support for the people in the theater.

“I felt really bad for the people that lost their lives today,” he said as cars zoomed past on Sable.

So far, the reaction to the pre-teen do-gooder has been positive.

“I get people that honk, I get a few thumbs up,” he said.

Critics of a controversial police traffic stop have moved from online message boards to Wikipedia.

A reader today sent us a link to Aurora police Chief Dan Oates’s Wiki page, which now includes some edits critical of Oates.

The edits are a series of criticisms of the department’s controversial decision last month to stop several cars and detain 40 innocent people during a search for a bank robber.

The real zinger comes at the end of a section detailing Oates’ education, including his law degree.

“It is amazing that someone with a background in practicing law could have been involved in the Aurora, Colorado incident,” the page says.

The online encyclopedia lets just about anybody edit any page, and someone clearly opted to take advantage of that freedom on Oates’ page. The edits aren’t as inflammatory as some Wiki edits can be, but this is the first time we can remember a local official having some not-so-friendly changes made to their page.

Former Mayor Ed Tauer’s page includes a nod to his fondness for the word “neat,” but that’s about it.

I called a department spokesman about the page this afternoon to see if they had any comment, but haven’t heard back yet.

Good-mood food?

An Aurora man appears to disagree that a trip to Arby’s will leave customers feeling good.

In a lawsuit filed last week in El Paso County District Court, an Aurora man accuses an Arby’s in Monument of having a defective urinal that shot a blast of hot steam on his genitals a few years ago.

CBS 4 in Denver has the full story, which has been picked up by several blogs this morning.

According to the suit, which the Denver TV station posted online, when the man told an Arby’s employee that the urinal burned him, the employee said that happens when the sink in the kitchen is being used.

Aurora police working a seat belt checkpoint last weekend saw a pretty incredible lapse in judgement by a local parent. 

Rather than strap their toddler into a car seat, a parent apparently strapped a gas can into the car seat and the child into a regular seat last weekend.

The Colorado Department of Transportation posted a picture of the incident on their facebook page Monday.

“Unbelievable! This heartbreaking photo was taken by an officer with the Aurora Police Department during Click It or Ticket enforcement last week. Share it to remind everyone that life is precious, so please be responsible and make sure children are properly restrained in the appropriate child safety seat,” the post said.

The parent was cited for three violations during the stop, according to news reports.

Nov. 6 could be a very busy day for Leslie Hansen.

The long-time Arapahoe County prosecutor is running for District Attorney and if she wins this month’s primary against George Brauchler, her name will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

By itself, that makes for a hectic Tuesday.

But this morning, she added another lofty task to her Nov. 6 schedule: trying a 16-year-old murder case in Arapahoe County.

In a hearing this morning, a judge scheduled Michael Medina’s trial to start Nov. 6. Hansen is one of the prosecutors on the case, so beyond watching election returns, she could be spending Election Day quizzing jurors and plotting the prosecution’s strategy.

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