Aurora Theater Shooting

James Holmes Shooting Trial Starts April 27, and Dark Questions Remain

The trial of accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes is scheduled to begin with opening statements on Monday, April 27, in Arapahoe County District Court. It’s been more than two and a half years since Holmes is alleged to have opened fire at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora on July 20, 2012, during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. The shooting left twelve people dead and seventy more wounded.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His defense attorneys have said that the 27-year-old former neuroscience student at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is mentally ill and was “in the throes of a psychotic episode” at the time of the shooting. But state prosecutors, led by District Attorney George Brauchler, have argued that Holmes was sane when he committed the crimes. They are seeking the death penalty.

The trial is likely to stretch on for months due to the high number of witnesses who are expected to testify. It will also reveal new information about Holmes and the crime. In advance of the proceedings, here’s a primer on what we know, what we don’t know, and why it matters.

What We Know
Holmes grew up in California and enrolled at the University of Colorado as a neuroscience graduate student in 2011. In June 2012, prosecutors say, he failed key oral exams, and his professors suggested he find a different path. He began the process of withdrawing from CU. That same month, a school psychiatrist who had treated Holmes told a CU police officer that Holmes was a danger to the public. According to a search warrant in the case, Dr. Lynne Fenton told the officer that Holmes had threatened her and made “homicidal statements.”

By then, Holmes had already started buying weapons. In May, June and July 2012, he bought a semi-automatic rifle, a hundred-round drum magazine, a shotgun and two handguns, according to testimony at a three-day preliminary hearing held in January 2013. Holmes also bought ballistic body armor, tear-gas grenades, various chemicals and smokeless gunpowder, among other items, law enforcement agents testified at the hearing. On July 7, Holmes bought a ticket online to the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.

On July 12, Holmes mailed a package to Fenton at her CU address. According to a search warrant, the package contained a brown spiral notebook that appeared to be a journal and twenty partially burned twenty-dollar bills. But Fenton never received the package. Instead, it was retrieved from the CU mailroom by police several days after the shooting.

Police found photos of the Aurora Century 16 theater on Holmes’s iPhone. The photos, which were displayed at the preliminary hearing, were taken in June and early July and show both the inside and outside of the theater, the emergency exits and a close-up of a door latch.

Police also found a series of photos taken on July 19, about six hours before the shooting. The photos include shots of Holmes with dyed orange hair, wearing a black skullcap and contact lenses that made his irises appear black. In one photo, he’s holding the muzzle of a handgun near his chin and flashing what one law enforcement officer called “a large, toothy grin.” In another, he’s holding a homemade bomb and pretending to blow out the fuse.

Security footage played at the preliminary hearing shows Holmes entering the Century 16 theater at about midnight. The Dark Knight Rises was playing on several screens that night. A witness reported to police that before the movie started in theater nine, he saw a man in a black cap who was sitting in the front row take a phone call and walk to the emergency exit. According to testimony, when police arrived after the shooting, they found that the emergency exit had been propped open with a plastic tablecloth holder.

Several minutes into the movie, witnesses reported, a man dressed in black entered theater nine through that emergency exit, threw a canister of tear gas into the audience and opened fire, spraying movie-goers with bullets from a rifle, a shotgun and a handgun. Twelve people were fatally shot and seventy were wounded in the attack or while fleeing the theater.

The first 911 call came in at 12:38 a.m., and the first police officers arrived on the scene less than two minutes later. Holmes was arrested outside the theater shortly thereafter. Officers testified that they found him standing by his car, which was parked in the spot nearest to the emergency exit for theater nine. He was wearing a gas mask and head-to-toe black body armor. According to testimony, Holmes was “disoriented and out of it” and didn’t resist arrest.

When the officers asked Holmes about weapons, he said there were explosives at his Aurora apartment that were set to go off “if you trip them,” according to testimony. At Holmes’s apartment, police did indeed find an elaborate system of homemade bombs and explosive chemicals. According to testimony, Holmes told police that “he had rigged his apartment to explode or catch fire to send resources to his apartment rather than to the theater.”

Holmes was brought to the police station and put in an interview room with paper bags over his hands to preserve any gunshot residue. According to testimony, Holmes began to move his hands “in a talking-puppet motion” and tried to stick a staple into an electrical outlet.

On July 23, Holmes appeared in court for the first time. He seemed dazed and looked as if he was nodding off, leading to wide speculation that he was heavily medicated. At subsequent hearings over the past two and a half years, Holmes has seemed awake yet mostly expressionless. He rarely moves around or talks to his attorneys.

Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in June 2013. He has since undergone at least two mental evaluations to determine if he was sane at the time of the crimes. The first was done by a psychiatrist who interviewed Holmes for 25 hours and spent 100 hours reviewing evidence in the case, according to court documents. The psychiatrist also interviewed witnesses, including mental-health professionals who’d previously interacted with Holmes. But Judge Carlos Samour found the psychiatrist’s evaluation to be “inadequate” and ordered Holmes to undergo a second evaluation by a different psychiatrist, which he did.

What We Don’t Know
Much of what we don’t know relates not to the how, but to the why of the case.

The law enforcement officials who testified at Holmes’s preliminary hearing spoke about his actions — buying weapons, taking photos of the theater — but they didn’t divulge any insight into what he was thinking. For instance, the contents of the notebook that Holmes mailed to Fenton are still under wraps. So are about 1,200 e-mails from Holmes’s CU e-mail account. Investigators also searched Holmes’s personal e-mail accounts, his computers, his phone, his car and his apartment. The full extent of what they found hasn’t been revealed, but the court did release a list of items found in Holmes’s apartment; among them were bottles of the drugs sertraline and clonazepam, which are used to treat depression and anxiety.

Little is known about Holmes’s mental-health history and background. No one involved in the case has offered any information about whether he had been diagnosed with a particular mental illness or whether he was being treated for something specific. His attorneys wrote in a court document that he was “in the throes of a psychotic episode” when he committed the acts, but they haven’t given any details about what might have caused that episode.

The results of the two court-ordered mental evaluations have not been released to the public, either. The reports written by the psychiatrists who examined Holmes after his arrest will be among the most important evidence at his trial. It’s likely that Holmes’s attorneys hired their own psychiatrists to evaluate him, too. The details of who examined him, when those examinations took place and what they revealed have also been kept from the public.

Why It Matters
The most important question that jurors will have to answer is not whether Holmes killed twelve people and attempted to kill seventy more, but whether he was insane at the time.

That’s because Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Essentially, Holmes is arguing that he can’t be held responsible for what happened because he was insane. Under Colorado law, insanity is defined as a person who was “so diseased or defective in mind at the time” of the crime that he couldn’t tell wrong from right. A person can also be found insane if a jury determines that he was suffering from a “mental disease or defect” that prevented him from “forming the culpable state of mind” to commit the crime. For first-degree murder, which Holmes is accused of committing, that state of mind is “after deliberation and with intent” to kill.

The psychiatrists’ examinations are meant to shed light on whether Holmes was insane. Their testimony will be crucial, and it may also be contradictory: Some doctors may think he was insane and others may not. If they disagree, it will be up to the jurors to decide whom to believe.

If the jury finds that Holmes was insane and therefore not guilty, state law dictates that he be sent to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo. His stay will be indefinite, meaning that unlike a defined prison sentence, the amount of time he spends there will be determined by the doctors and the court. If state hospital doctors feel that a patient is no longer dangerous, they can request that he be released. The process usually starts with off-campus privileges and gradually moves toward increasing freedom. But a patient can’t be released without permission from the court, which gives prosecutors and victims a chance to object.

The average stay for patients who were found not guilty by reason of insanity of first-degree murder between 1995 and 2013 was 7.3 years, according to hospital statistics. But that doesn’t mean that all of them got out. Only 51 percent of patients who were committed after insanity acquittals in first-degree-murder cases were granted any type of release, statistics show.

If the jury finds Holmes guilty, the trial will enter a second phase known as the penalty phase. Jurors will hear evidence to help them decide whether to sentence Holmes to life in prison or death by lethal injection. Prosecutors will attempt to prove one or more aggravating factors, which are listed in state law. They include that the defendant killed more than one person, that the defendant killed a child, and that the defendant committed the crime “from ambush.”

Meanwhile, defense attorneys will present mitigating evidence to try to convince jurors to spare Holmes’s life. Mitigating evidence can include information about the defendant’s age, his clean criminal record and his “capacity to appreciate wrongfulness” with regard to his crime.

Victims can also testify about how the crime has affected them. In the end, jurors must decide if the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors and whether a death sentence is proper. The decision for death must be unanimous.

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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