James Holmes Trial: Lawyers, Judge Begin Questioning Potential Jurors

Mental illness and the death penalty featured prominently in questions posed to twelve potential jurors in the Aurora theater shooting case on Wednesday.

At one point, prosecutor Rich Orman pointed toward suspect James Holmes, who was seated in the courtroom with his attorneys, and asked a prospective juror, "Would you be able to say that this man over here should die?"

"Yes," said the potential juror, a middle-aged woman who trained as a lawyer and owns a business.

She also said she'd be capable of sentencing him to life in prison.

Holmes is accused of murdering twelve people and injuring seventy more by opening fire in an Aurora movie theater in July 2012. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. If he's convicted, the jury could vote to impose the death penalty.

Wednesday's court session marked the beginning of the jury selection's second phase, in which the several hundred prospective jurors left in the pool will be questioned, one by one, about their beliefs and ability to serve. The plan, Judge Carlos Samour has said, is to use their answers to find between 100 and 120 people to be called back for a two-day group questioning session. From that group, 24 people — twelve jurors and twelve alternates — will be picked for the trial, which is expected to begin in May or June and last four to five months.

On Wednesday, seven of the twelve potential jurors were asked to return for group questioning. Five were released, including a Vietnam War veteran who said he suffers from health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder, a man who said he couldn't be impartial, and a woman who said that English is her second language and she might have trouble understanding the proceedings.
Many of the seven who were asked back emphasized that they could be fair jurors and follow the law despite their personal beliefs. "I don't believe in killing," said one woman with three young children who is studying to be a therapist. But when asked if she could decide Holmes's fate based on the law, she said, "Yes, I believe I can." Pushed to clarify her answer, she was more confident: "Yes," she said, "I can."

Defense attorneys focused many of their questions on Holmes's potential penalty, which they said was awkward considering he hasn't been convicted yet. They emphasized to potential jurors that by asking about executing Holmes, they were in no way conceding that he's guilty. They posed a hypothetical scenario: Say you're a juror on a different case and you find the defendant guilty of murdering an innocent victim. "What are your thoughts about the death penalty being the only appropriate penalty for that guilty killer?" they asked.

Many of the prospective jurors had a hard time staying in the hypothetical and seemed to refer back to Holmes's specific case. But all seven of those who were asked back said they'd consider both possible sentences: death by lethal injection and life in prison without parole.

Defense attorneys also asked several potential jurors if, in their minds, murdering multiple people or murdering a child made a crime worse.

No, said an older man to the latter question. "Life is life."

That same man said he had some knowledge about mental illness. Prosecutors referred to an answer he gave on his juror questionnaire that seemed to indicate he was close with someone who suffered from it. "Mental illness is real," the man said by way of explaining his response. When prosecutor Jacob Edson asked how the man's life experience would influence him as a juror, the man said that it gives him an understanding of mental illness. To believe someone is truly mentally ill, he said he'd have to hear from professionals who diagnosed the person and look at the person's history. Mental illness, he said, isn't something you can take on and off or "use as a cloak."

The questioning of individual potential jurors continues today and is expected to go on until May.
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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar

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