Lawyers for accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes think the state's death penalty laws are unconstitutional -- and they've filed a flurry of motions (some of which are on view below) asking that the judge in the case declare them so.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Holmes, who is accused of murdering twelve people and injuring seventy others by opening fire at the Aurora Century 16 theater in July 2012. Holmes's attorneys have admitted that he was the gunman.
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The arguments made by Holmes's attorneys in motions asking that the judge declare Colorado's death penalty law unconstitutional include:
- That the "class of individuals" eligible for the death penalty is too broad. In Colorado, a person who is convicted of first-degree murder is sentenced to either life in prison or death. Their sentence can depend on whether or not their case contains any "aggravating factors" -- circumstances that increase the severity of a crime. Aggravating factors can include the way in which the murder was committed (if the killer used a bomb, for example) or the reason for the act (such as for money or to avoid an arrest). They can also be based upon the identity of the victim (if the victim was a police officer, a judge, a pregnant woman or a child, for instance).
Nearly all first-degree murder cases contain at least one aggravating factor, making them eligible for the death penalty, Holmes's attorneys maintain. Their argument is based on a study conducted by University of Denver law professors who looked at every murder case filed in Colorado between January 1, 1999 and December 31, 2010. Of the 596 cases, 539 of them contained at least one aggravating factor, according to the study.
However, prosecutors sought the death penalty in only fifteen cases, Holmes's attorneys wrote. And of those, just three cases ended in a death penalty verdict, resulting in what the attorneys say is an "arbitrary and inconsistent application of the death penalty."
- That over the past ten years, Colorado prosecutors have sought the death penalty in just eleven cases. Eight of those cases, including Holmes's, came out of the 18th Judicial District, where the prosecutors have a reputation for seeking harsh punishments (some would say too harsh) against criminals. "Mr. Holmes urges this court to find that he has a fundamental right to not be put to death pursuant to such an unequal, rare, inconsistently applied, and unusual system," his attorneys wrote.
- That the Capital Jury Project, a research program launched in 1991 that interviews real jurors about how they made their decisions, has cited problems with the capital sentencing process. Findings include that jurors' own biases play into their decisions, that some jurors incorrectly believe death is required in a capital case and that jurors sometimes make decisions about whether a person deserves death before all of the evidence has been presented. For instance, a CJP study found that nearly half of capital jurors in thirteen states decided the defendant deserved to die before the end of the trial.
- That "death-qualifying" individual jurors produce juries that are "prone to convict." In capital cases, prospective jurors are asked if they'd be willing to consider all forms of punishment, including the death penalty. If they say "yes," they are death-qualified and eligible to serve on the jury. If they say "no," they are not. Furthermore, Holmes's attorneys cite research that shows death-qualified jurors are more likely to believe in "insanity myths," such as that defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity are immediately released back into society. That could impede Holmes's right to a fair trial, they argue, since he has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Prosecutors will now respond to the defense's motions in writing. The motions are scheduled to be debated in court over two weeks in December, and Holmes's trial is slated to start in February 2014.