Update below: James Holmes, the suspect in the July 20 shooting at an Aurora movie theater that killed twelve people and wounded seventy others, was widely expected to plead not guilty by reason of insanity at an arraignment hearing today.
Instead, Judge William Sylvester entered a not-guilty plea for Holmes -- although Holmes can potentially change this designation in the future. Sylvester also set a trial date of August 5, as well as numerous other hearings over the next several months.
The hearing was scheduled to get under way at 9 a.m., but it was delayed approximately half an hour due to the late arrival of Daniel King, Holmes's lawyer, presumably due to weather-related traffic problems.
Once the hearing got started, King told the court that Holmes's legal team was not ready to enter a plea and asked Sylvester to postpone the arraignment for a few months -- perhaps until May 1, possibly June 1. "I don't think we could ethically stand before you and say we're ready to enter a plea," King stated.
He added that the defense still had a great many questions about, among other things, a mental evaluation of Holmes and how it could be used against him in a possible death-penalty proceeding. But even if the court had answered all of these questions to the defense's satisfaction, King went on, Holmes's lawyers still might not have been ready to enter a plea today.
King also pointed out that Holmes's attorneys had retained experts who are currently working on his behalf and making progress, but they haven't completed their tasks. However, he didn't elaborate, saying, "We can't get into it in open court."
These comments were not well received in the overflow room at the courthouse, where a considerable number of victims watched the hearing on a closed-circuit monitor. When King asked for a delay, a number of people sighed, with several shaking their head.
Prosecutor Karen Pearson subsequently objected to postponing the arraignment -- and when she did so, one woman in the overflow room whispered, "Thank God."
Continue for more about the arraignment in the Aurora theater shooting case. Pearson countered the postponement request by pointing out that "it's been eight months since the date of the offense." She added that prosecutors had polled victims on the question of a postponement, with 75 objecting, seven taking no position, and only six acquiescing to the arraignment being pushed back.
"At some point, this case simply has to go forward," Pearson said.
Sylvester agreed, declining to postpone the arraignment. But he said the law allows a defendant to enter a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea later, adding that the "court certainly would consider" such a switch should the defense choose to head in that direction.
As a result, Sylvester entered a not-guilty plea for Holmes. The suspect didn't speak at the hearing. Instead he sat, looking forward, as he has at previous court appearances. He wore a red jumpsuit. His hair is bushy, and he has a beard.
The judge also set several more dates. Newly elected 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler said he would be ready by April 1 to announce whether prosecutors would seek the death penalty in the case. That date is also when the court will look into evidence of leaks in the case; Fox News reporter Jana Winter has been subpoenaed to testify in relation to a report about a Holmes notebook said to contain sketches related to the theater attack.
A motions hearing has been set for May 13-15, and a trial status hearing is slated to take place on July 25, with the trial itself to get under way on August 5. It's expected to take four weeks.
Update: Victim Marcus Weaver, who attended today's arraignment, says that he's glad that it wasn't postponed and that the case is moving forward.
Weaver was in the theater on July 20, when a gunman opened fire during the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. He'd gone to the movie with his friend Rebecca Wingo, who was one of twelve people killed in the shooting. Weaver himself was shot in the arm.
Holmes was arrested outside the theater and has been charged with 166 crimes in relation to the shooting. They include 24 counts of first-degree murder, 140 counts of attempt to commit first-degree murder, one count of possession of explosive devices and one sentence enhancer for a crime of violence.
Of Holmes, Weaver says, "We have to deal with the thought of him every day."
But today in court, Weaver says Holmes struck him as another human being who made a grave mistake. "He didn't look deranged," Weaver says, adding that Holmes deserves a trial -- but that prosecutors have amassed a lot of evidence against him.
Weaver says he hasn't always agreed with the idea of the death penalty, but if Holmes continues to insist on his innocence, it should be sought in this case. If he pleads guilty, Weaver thinks Holmes should be sentenced to life in prison without parole instead.
Note: An earlier version of this story said that Holmes's attorneys entered the plea of not guilty. It was actually the judge who entered the plea. We regret the error.
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