Aurora Theater Shooting Jury: Death Penalty Still on the Table

James Holmes in court on Monday, August 3, after the verdicts were read.
James Holmes in court on Monday, August 3, after the verdicts were read.

The death penalty is still a possibility for Aurora theater shooting gunman James Holmes, according to an announcement made today.

Starting tomorrow, the jurors in his trial are expected to hear from the loved ones of the twelve people he murdered in the attack. Their testimony will make up the third and final phase of the sentencing portion of the trial. Then the jurors will decide whether to sentence Holmes to life in prison or death.

On Monday morning, the jurors reached a series of verdicts that ensured that the trial would move forward to the third phase. In essence, they found that evidence of Holmes's mental illness did not outweigh the heinousness of his crime. If they had found the opposite, Holmes would have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In the courtroom, Holmes stood as Judge Carlos Samour read the verdicts. Holmes's hands were in the pockets of his khaki pants, just as they had been when Samour announced that the jury found him guilty of 24 counts of murder and 140 counts of attempted murder — two counts for each victim. Holmes's public defenders stood with him. At one point, attorney Kristen Nelson placed her hand on Holmes's arm just above the crook of his elbow. 

His parents, Bob and Arlene, were in their usual seats in the second row of the gallery. From there, they could see the back of their son's head and his blue collared dress shirt as he stood, still as always, and listened. The technical wording of the verdicts was confusing, but their meaning seemed clear to both Holmes's parents and the victims and family members of the deceased, who sat on the opposite side of the courtroom, nearest to the jury and farthest from Holmes.

Some victims wiped away tears. Others buried their faces in their hands or shook their heads up and down. Several reached out and grasped each other.

Holmes's parents also wiped away tears. About halfway through the reading of the verdicts, his father put his arm around his mother's shoulders. She leaned her head against his.

The jury's verdicts concluded the sentencing portion of the tria's second phase, in which jurors heard from neighbors and teachers who knew Holmes as a child. The jury also heard from his younger sister, his father and his mother, who said they had no idea that Holmes had a mental illness until July 20, 2012, when he opened fire at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. Even though Holmes told his psychiatrist that he had homicidal thoughts, his parents testified that the doctor never passed that information to them.

"We wouldn't be sitting here if she had told me that," a tearful Arlene said on the stand last week.

Joshua Nowlan, who was shot in the theater, speaks to the media after the verdicts were read on Monday.EXPAND
Joshua Nowlan, who was shot in the theater, speaks to the media after the verdicts were read on Monday.
Melanie Asmar

But her testimony, and the testimony of others who care about Holmes, wasn't enough to convince jurors to take the death penalty off the table. Instead, they found that the mitigating factors presented by his defense attorneys — including testimony about his ordinary childhood and progressively serious mental illness — did not outweigh the horror of his crime.

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After the verdicts were read Monday afternoon, survivor Joshua Nowlan addressed a semicircle of news cameras and reporters on the lawn of the Arapahoe County courthouse. Nowlan was wounded in the arm and the leg and now walks with a cane.

"We're one step closer," Nowlan said. He agrees with the jury's decision to proceed to the third phase of the sentencing portion of the trial, and he said that he'll be happy with whatever the final decision is. "At the very end, we'll finally get the closure we all deserve," he added.

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips also spoke to the media. Sandy's daughter, 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi, was one of the twelve people killed in the theater.

"We're very happy that the outcome came as quickly as it did and that the jurors are taking this as seriously as they are," she said. 

Sandy said she will be among the family members slated to testify about the crime's impact. "I'm a little overwhelmed," she said. "My job is to share Jessie with the jury."


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