Aurora Theater Shooting

Aurora Theater Shooting Trial, Day One: Gunman Motivated By Self-Worth?

Gunman James Holmes believed that killing people would increase his self worth.

Lawyers on both sides of his court case agree on that. But they disagree on what made him think that way. They also disagree about whether he's guilty of murdering twelve people and injuring seventy more by opening fire in a crowded Aurora movie theater in July 2012.

In opening statements on Monday, prosecutors and defense attorneys took turns telling their version of the story to the jury. It was the first day of Holmes's trial, and the courtroom was packed with victims and news reporters. Holmes's parents were there too, sitting a few rows behind their son, who wore maroon-rimmed glasses, a blue-and-white striped shirt and his hair cut neat.

District attorney George Brauchler described Holmes as a young man looking for a purpose. But after doing poorly in his neuroscience graduate program and breaking up with his girlfriend, he said, Holmes felt like he had none. The intelligent but socially anxious 24-year-old meticulously planned the massacre and carried it out "to make himself feel better," Brauchler said.

Two psychiatrists who examined Holmes after the shooting found that he was sane at the time of the crime, Brauchler revealed.

But Holmes's defense attorneys argued that he was insane. They said Holmes suffers from schizophrenia, and his illness was getting worse in the months before the shooting. As he got sicker, his thoughts turned into delusions, they said; he began to believe in a system of "human capital" — that by killing others, he could improve his own life.  "When James Holmes stepped into that theater in July of 2012, he was insane," defense attorney Daniel King told the jury. "His mind had been overcome by a disease of the brain."

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Each side spent two hours on Monday afternoon giving an opening statement. Their statements revealed new details about Holmes's background and mental health, and about what happened in the year leading up to the shooting. For the first time, lawyers talked about the brown composition notebook that Holmes mailed to a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado in Aurora, where he was a student.

Brauchler said the notebook is filled with writings about the meaning of life and death, and Holmes's "longstanding hatred of mankind."  In a slide presentation that played on three flat-screen TVs as he spoke, Brauchler showed excerpts in Holmes's messy cursive handwriting. The notebook was where Holmes planned the attack, Brauchler said; he even mapped out the individual theaters within the Century 16 movie theater to figure out which ones had the fewest exits through which victims could escape.

King, however, described the notebook differently. He started his opening statement by reading from it. "Why do persons commit to zero, or negative infinity?" he read. "Untruth is converted to truth.... Zero times problem equals question mark.... Zero equals zero. Problem solved."

"When you read it," King told the jury, "you will see that it makes no sense." One doctor, King said, described the notebook as being "full of a whole lot of crazy." In his own slide presentation, King showed pages upon pages scrawled with a single word: "Why?"

As a child, defense attorneys said, Holmes seemed normal. He grew up in a middle-class family in southern California, the son of parents he affectionately called Goober and Bobbo. In court, his attorneys played home videos of a young Holmes boogie boarding in the ocean, playing on a slide and smiling into the camera. He earned good grades, they said, and never got into any trouble.

"He was what we all want our children to be like," King said.

But his family had a history of mental illness; both of his grandfathers and his father's twin sister suffered from psychiatric disorders, King said, and Holmes soon followed suit. In middle school, he said, Holmes began to withdraw. He attempted suicide at age eleven and by high school, he was having what King described as "intrusive thoughts" telling him to kill people. He also had a very high I.Q., which served him well in college. After he graduated, King said, he decided to go to graduate school to study neuroscience "to find a fix to quiet his mind."

However, Brauchler pointed out that the first time Holmes tried to get into grad school, he was rejected. Even though he had a high GPA and excellent test scores, Holmes came off as aloof and disinterested in entrance interviews. So he spent a year living with his parents at home and working the late shift at a pill-coating factory. When he applied again the next year, he was accepted at two schools, including CU. He came to Colorado in the summer of 2011 because CU offered him the most financial aid, Brauchler said.

While Holmes excelled at tests and classwork, the lawyers said, he struggled with the more social parts of the program, including the lab work. Holmes had severe social anxiety and didn't speak up much. When he did, King said, "he said odd things at odd times." 

Still, he began dating a girl for the first time in his life. In Brauchler's slide presentation, he showed one of Holmes's early texts to her: "Hey girl, lost my number. Can I have yours?" Holmes was always more comfortable communicating in writing than in person, Brauchler said.

But if things were going okay in the fall of 2011, they took a turn for the worse in early 2012. Holmes's girlfriend broke up with him, Brauchler said, and he got poor scores from the professors supervising his lab rotations. In March, he visited a counselor at CU and admitted that he sometimes thought about killing people. But because he said he had no specific plans or targets, the counselor concluded that he wasn't dangerous, Brauchler told the jury. She did, however, refer him to CU psychiatrist Dr. Lynne Fenton.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys differed in their descriptions of what happened next. King said that in the spring of 2012, Holmes "experienced a psychotic break." The schizophrenia — the "brain disease" — that had been slowly creeping into his life was now full-blown, he said. Holmes started seeing shadows and obsessing about life and death. He came up with his "human capital" idea and wrote to his ex-girlfriend in a Google chat that "you take away life and your human capital is limitless."

"His thinking was diseased," King said.

But Brauchler portrayed it differently. In the face of his failing academic career and his ruined love life, Holmes felt like he'd lost his purpose, Brauchler said. He began plotting mass murder in his notebook at the same time that he was writing cheerful e-mails to his parents about the weather and upcoming holidays. Holmes told Fenton that people were his problem and he could solve that problem by killing them all, Brauchler said. But he didn't tell her that he had a plan to do so; instead, Brauchler said, Holmes wrote in his notebook that he had to keep his plan secret from "the mind rapists" so they wouldn't lock him up and stop him from carrying it out.

Using the checking account he shared with his parents, Holmes bought groceries at King Soopers and dutifully paid the rent on his Aurora apartment each month, Brauchler said. But with a credit card that belonged to him alone, he purchased guns, body armor, ammunition and explosives that he'd eventually use to rig his apartment to blow up on the same night that he opened fire in the theater. He also used that card to sign up for several online dating sites, posting "Will you visit me in prison?"

At the end of the school year, Holmes decided to withdraw from CU. His parents told him he was welcome to move back home, Brauchler said, but Holmes declined their offer. He remained in Colorado, dyed his hair red and texted a girl he was interested in that she should stay away from him, Brauchler said. He asked if she'd ever met anyone with "dysphoric mania" and told her that he was "bad news bears."

In early July, Holmes's father e-mailed to ask if he and Holmes's mother could visit in August. "Hey Bobbo," Holmes wrote back, according to an e-mail Brauchler showed in his presentation. "Don't have any plans for that weekend. ~~~Jimmy."

Holmes's attorneys are not disputing that he was the gunman. Instead, they're arguing that he can't be held responsible for his actions.

Because of his mental illness, King said, "he felt as if he was possessed."

Holmes's illness worsened after he was arrested, King said. Holmes believed that others in the jail could read his thoughts and that President Obama was communicating to him through the television. In November, he stood on his bed and fell backward onto the floor. When a deputy asked him why he'd done it, King said, Holmes told him, "I do not know if you are real."

Holmes was moved to what King described as a "rubber room." There, King said, Holmes exhibited bizarre behavior: he licked the walls, ate lunch-meat between two flattened Styrofoam cups and did backward somersaults while sucking his thumb and crying. He was eventually taken to Denver Health; on the way there, King said, Holmes kept repeating, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." The doctors diagnosed Holmes with psychosis, King said. In a video that defense attorneys played for the jury, Holmes can be seen sitting in a hospital bed and answering questions about the "prodding and forceful" shadows he says caused him to try to hide in his bed the night before.

Holmes is now medicated, King said, and he "regrets what took place in the theater." But he is not cured, defense attorneys said.

"James Holmes did not choose this mental illness," another defense attorney, Katherine Spengler, told the jurors at the end of the defense's opening statement.

"Even though there is a why, you have to be prepared for that why not to make sense to you."

But the only psychiatrist who opined that Holmes was insane at the time of the crime was the one "handpicked" by the defense, Brauchler said. Holmes told the two court-ordered psychiatrists that his goal was to kill as many people as possible. When one of the doctors asked how Holmes viewed the people who were wounded in the attack, Holmes said, "They're like collateral damage, I guess."

Brauchler spent time talking about those victims, telling the jury a little bit about some of the people who were injured and killed: Rebecca Wingo, a mother of two. Gordon Cowden, a father of four. Alex Sullivan, a superhero fan celebrating his 27th birthday. Ashley Moser, who found out that day that she was three months pregnant and celebrated by taking her 6-year-old daughter, Veronica, to the movies.

"That guy shot her four times," Brauchler told the jury. "I'm not going to show you those pictures because you should only have to see them once." As he spoke, the victims and family members watching from the courtroom dabbed at their eyes with tissues from boxes put out for them. One of the jurors, a young woman, adjusted her glasses and appeared to wipe away tears.

At the end of his statement, Brauchler raised his voice for the first time in two hours.

"I'm going to ask you," he told the jury, "to hold him accountable."

The trial resumes today and is expected to continue for four-to-five months.
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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