Colorado movie theater shooter set to learn fate 3 years later
CENTENNIAL, Colorado — Twelve people who’d gone to a Colorado movie theater for an evening’s entertainment never came home. Seventy who’d wanted to see “The Dark Knight Rises” found themselves wounded in an all-too-real barrage of gunfire. And one man, James Holmes, was responsible for it all.
There’s no question that Holmes walked into the crowded Aurora theater and unleashed a torrent of bullets on unsuspecting moviegoers on July 20, 2012.
What is in question is if he’ll be found guilty of the bloodshed and, if so, what penalty he’ll face.
Jurors will begin deliberating his fate Wednesday on the 165 charges Holmes faces in connection to the suburban Denver carnage.
Their decision will come about six months after jury selection began and more than 11 weeks after the trial’s start.
Prosecutors alone called more than 200 witnesses to the stand, among them investigators, students who knew Holmes and his ex-girlfriend.
By virtue of his pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, the now 27-year-old Holmes has never denied he was behind the killing. But given his mental state, his lawyers argue that he should not be found culpable.
‘Like a deer in the headlights’
Having bought a ticket 12 days earlier, Holmes walked into the theater #9 screening of “The Dark Night Rises” like other patrons. He then walked out through a rear door, which he left propped open.
Just after midnight, some 18 minutes after the movie began, he — with his bright red-orange hair looking like the Joker, the Batman villain, as portrayed by late actor Heath Ledger in an earlier movie — returned wearing a ballistic helmet, a gas mask, black gloves and protective gear for his legs, throat and groin.
A tear gas canister exploded in the theater, then gunfire erupted from an AR-15 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and at least one .40 caliber handgun. The real-life horror story ended with Holmes’ arrest outside the theater about seven minutes after the first 911 calls were made to police.
But it wasn’t in time to save the lives of Jonathan Blunk, Alexander Boik, Jesse Childress, Gordon Cowden, Jessica Ghawi, John Thomas Larimer, Matthew McQuinn, Micayla Medek, Alex Sullivan, Alexander Teves, Rebecca Ann Wingo and the youngest victim, 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan.
During the trial, prosecutors detailed the nightmare, describing the scores of spent shells, pellets and casings, as well as the accompanying bullet holes. They played a graphic 45-minute video showing bloodied bodies scrawled across the floor and aisles, some contorted and others in fetal positions. They noted more than 200 live rounds were never fired, though it’s hard for anyone to fathom it could have been worse.
“I was like a deer in the headlights. I froze. I wasn’t able to process what was going on,” Kimberly Avra testified of her reaction before a friend pulled her to the ground. “So I sat there and stared at it (the shooter).”
Who was James Holmes?
Prosecutors painted a picture of a once-promising neuroscience student who knew exactly what he was doing, both carrying out the attack and rigging his apartment with makeshift explosives ahead of authorities’ arrival.
“Nothing was random,” said FBI Special Agent Christopher Rigopoulos, who was part of the evidence collection team who saw how Holmes’ apartment contained pickle jars filled with napalm and bullets linked together, plastic soda bottles filled with gasoline and other dangerous concoctions.
Those who spent time with Holmes as a PhD student at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora described him as quiet and socially awkward, but seemingly not “detached from reality.”
Fellow student Jessica Cummiske recalled that one thing about Holmes’ eyes really stood out. “There was more than one occasion where his pupils were completely blown out. It was shocking, stunning,” she said.
In fact, defense attorneys repeatedly highlighted Holmes’ dilated eyes during cross-examination.
But this line of defense is controversial. For more than 100 years, mental health experts have studied pupil dilation, but it hasn’t yet proved to be a way to diagnose psychiatric conditions, according to Slate magazine and “The Handbook of Clinical Neurology.”
Psychiatrist: Admitted to ‘homicidal thoughts’
Holmes’ lawyers never denied that their client was responsible for the mass shooting, one of the worst in U.S. history. Their argument throughout the trial was that he’d been mentally off all along.
Months before the shooting, Dr. Lynne Fenton said Holmes told her he had “homicidal thoughts” as often as three or four times a day. As his treatment progressed, he told her his obsession with killing was only getting worse.
Yet the psychiatrist explained that she didn’t place him in a psychiatric hold because he never disclosed his intention to kill or named a target. Nor did he talk about feeling manic or depressed or seeing “flickerings” or other hallucinations, as he did in a notebook Holmes mailed to her.
Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, a court-appointed psychiatrist, testified that “despite having mental disease or defect, Mr. Holmes (could) tell the difference between right from wrong.”
“It is my opinion,” Metzner said, “that Mr. Holmes, at the time of the commission of the alleged acts, met the criteria for legal sanity.”
When pressed by the defense — which addressed during the trial the depths of Holmes’ psychosis and delusions, asserting that he has schizophrenia — Metzner added that the shooting was a direct result of mental illness. Lawyer Daniel King then asked if the shooting wouldn’t have taken plane if not for Holmes’ condition.
Correct again, the psychiatrist stated.
Mother: ‘Mentally ill … need treatment, not execution’
If the jurors decide to convict Holmes on multiple murder charges, the next question would be what price he’ll pay.
Back in 2013, the prosecution signaled it would seek the death penalty.
“It is my determination and my intention that in this case, for James Eagan Holmes, justice is death,” Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said then.
Holmes’ lawyers have argued that he wasn’t in his right mind at the time of the shootings. And his parents Robert and Arlene Holmes haven’t spoken publicly, but they have written two open letters and published a prayer book detailing the family’s internal struggle and pleading for their son’s life.
Wrote Arlene Holmes, “Severely mentally ill people need treatment, not execution.”