CENTENNIAL — For James Holmes, “justice is death,” prosecutors said Monday in announcing they will seek his execution if he is convicted in the Colorado movie theater attack that killed 12 people.
The decision — disclosed in court just days after prosecutors publicly rejected Holmes’ offer to plead guilty if they took the death penalty off the table — elevated the already sensational case to a new level and could cause it to drag on for years.
“Given all the things I’ve considered … in all the information available to me, it’s my determination and my intention that in this case, for James Eagan Holmes, justice is death,” Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said, adding that he had personally discussed the case with 60 people who lost relatives in the July 20 shooting rampage by a gunman in a gas mask and body armor during a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie. The DA’s office also communicated with more than 800 victims and families before the decision was made, Brauchler said.
Brauchler said he did not tell anyone of his decision to seek the death penalty before he announced it in the courtroom.
There was no audible reaction from the 25-year-old former neuroscience graduate student, who sat with his back to reporters.
Holmes’ father, Robert, put his arm around Holmes’ mother, Arlene, after Brauchler announced his intent. Both parents looked somber but neither were visibly shaken. Some of the victims’ families cried.
Within minutes of it becoming official, the trial was pushed back from August to February 2014 and Judge William B. Sylvester removed himself from the case, saying that now that the charges carry the death penalty they will take years to resolve and he does not have the time to devote to such a drawn-out matter.
Despite the potential for more delays, some of those who lost loved ones were happy with prosecutors’ decision.
“I had a huge adrenaline rush,” said Bryan Beard, whose best friend Alex Sullivan was killed in the attack. “I love the choice. I love it, I love it.” He added: “I hope I’m in the room when he dies.”
But the prospect of a longer legal battle troubled others such as Pierce O’Farrill, who was shot three times.
“It could be 10 or 15 years before he’s executed. I would be in my 40s and I’m planning to have a family, and the thought of having to look back and reliving everything at that point in my life, it would be difficult,” he said.
Marcus Weaver, who was shot in the arm during the July 20 rampage, sat through the court hearing and said afterward he was disappointed that the trial might be delayed until next year.
The victims could attend dozens more court hearings and go through more emotional trauma before Holmes’ fate is decided, Weaver said.
“(Holmes) needs to just plead guilty and let’s just move forward,” he said.
Holmes’ lawyer, Tamara Brady, originally asked the newly assigned judge in the case, Carlos Samour Jr., to delay the trial until summer or fall 2014 in order for the defense to have time to prepare, which elicited groans from the victims’ families.
Brady said there were thousands of pages worth of evidence to pour over and more than 3,000 law enforcement officers worked on the case.
“They’re trying to execute our client, and we will do what we need to do to save his life,” she said.
She emphasized the importance of giving Holmes a fair trial.
“Mr. Holmes has a right to due process, and we’re asking the court not to rush this. This is the most important matter this courthouse and this court will ever hear,” she said.
Samour agreed the tentative trial start date should be pushed back, but not as far as Brady wanted. He assigned a trial start date of Feb. 3, 2014.
“I would like us to be aggressive in moving this case along, while at the same time making sure we do this right,” Samour said. Brady estimated the trial could take nine months, while prosecutors suggested three months.
Holmes looked scruffy during the hearing, still sporting his dark brown beard. He swiveled his chair slowly from side to side. He appeared alert and looked on —though expressionless — as members of the defense and prosecutors took the stand. About 30 victims and victims’ families attended the court hearing, which was guarded by eight armed sheriff’s deputies.
Holmes’ parents sat side by side in the gallery, among members of the media.They held hands with fingers intertwined much of the time, and Arlene Holmes clutched a cloth handkerchief. She kept her head down for most of the hearing. Robert Holmes appeared to console her several times by looking at her and squeezing her hand.
Holmes made eye contact with his parents almost every time he entered the courtroom during the 6-hour-long hearing. Robert Holmes gave a slight nod in acknowledgement.
Legal observers said Holmes’ lawyers publicly offered a guilty plea in what may have been a bid to gain support among victims’ families for a deal that would spare them a painful trial and lengthy appeals.
The prosecution and the defense could still reach a deal before the case goes to trial.
Holmes’ lawyers have indicated in court papers that they may instead pursue a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. But that carries great risk: Prosecutors could argue that Holmes methodically planned his attack, casing the theater, stockpiling weapons and booby-trapping his apartment with explosives.
Samour warned defense lawyers that if they want to change Holmes’ plea, the longer they wait the harder it will be to convince him to accept it. If Holmes is found not guilty by reason of insanity, he will be sent to the state mental hospital, then returned to prison after treatment.
Colorado has three people on death row but has executed just one person over the past 45 years, in 1997.
Samour is also considering whether a New York-based Fox News reporter should have to testify about how she obtained confidential information about Holmes.
Jana Winter cited anonymous law enforcement officials in reporting that Holmes had sent a psychiatrist a notebook of drawings that foreshadowed the attack. Holmes’ lawyers want to know who told Winter about the notebook, arguing that that person violated a gag order.
In the latest revelation in that case, Aurora Police Sgt. Matthew Fyles testified that a sticky note with a “symbol” was in the package sent to Dr. Lynne Fenton. Authorities previously did not confirm any drawings were inside but Winter’s lawyer was prevented from asking questions about it because prosecutors said it wasn’t relevant. Winter didn’t mention a sticky note in her report.
Fyles said Aurora Police Det. Alton Reed told him the notebook contained the sticky note as well as “unknown writing” and currency, but Fyles did not see the notebook firsthand.
Reed, who previously testified that he did see the notebook, will be subpoenaed to court for questioning on April 10. He will be asked whether he told anyone, including members of the media, about the contents of the package. Samour said his testimony will help inform his decision about whether anyone violated a court-issued pretrial publicity gag order.
The movie theater massacre helped lead to last month’s passage of new gun control measures in Colorado, including a ban on the sort of high-capacity magazines that Holmes allegedly used to spray the theater with dozens of bullets in a matter of seconds. Seventy people were injured in the attack.
President Barack Obama was scheduled to visit Denver on Wednesday to highlight the legislation as part of his push for more gun control following a school massacre in Connecticut in December.
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