Aurora Theater Shooting

Jury in Aurora Theater Shooting Case Must Decide if Gunman Was Insane

Did James Holmes know right from wrong when he walked into a sold-out Aurora movie theater nearly three years ago and began shooting? Or was he so mentally ill that he can't be held responsible for murdering twelve people and injuring seventy others? That's what a jury will have to decide.  

Closing arguments in the high-profile case ended early Tuesday evening. They were the last part of a months-long trial that included testimony from psychiatrists, police, people who knew Holmes in graduate school here in Colorado, and victims who were paralyzed in the attack. A jury of nine women and three men is scheduled to start deliberating this morning.

Holmes, who did not testify, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming that that his mental illness rendered him legally insane at the time of the shooting.

Doctors who examined him testified that Holmes suffers from schizophrenia or a closely related illness. His attorneys say the former University of Colorado neuroscience graduate student had for years been battling intrusive thoughts that compelled him to kill people. In the months before the shooting, they say, Holmes lost that battle. "When he walked into that theater, the evidence is clear that he could not control his thoughts," defense attorney Daniel King told the jury during his closing argument.

Holmes, he said, "had lost touch with reality."

But district attorney George Brauchler argued the opposite. "He knows what he's doing," he said.

Holmes's actions prove it, Brauchler said: If Holmes believed that his plans for mass murder were okay, why would he hide them from his parents? If he didn't think his victims would object, why did he try to block the theater exits so they couldn't escape? And why would he craft an apparent getaway plan by rigging his apartment with explosives in order to divert the police away from the theater?

"Because," Brauchler said, "he knows society would reject what he's doing."

The courtroom was full on Tuesday. Victims, including the families of several people killed in the shooting, sat on one side. Members of the media sat on the other, along with Holmes's parents. Holmes was seated with his attorneys. He wore a checked dress shirt and maroon-rimmed glasses, and his demeanor was the same as at the vast majority of his court appearances: He sat quietly, occasionally swiveling side-to-side in his chair. Meanwhile, some of the victims' families wiped away tears or even shook with near-silent sobs as Brauchler recounted how their loved ones had died.

During closing statements, attorneys tell the jury what they believe the evidence shows.

Brauchler went first yesterday afternoon. "This guy walked into that theater and tried to murder everyone in it," he said.

That Holmes may have a mental illness doesn't make him legally insane, Brauchler said. In fact, he argued that Holmes's attempts to cover up what he was doing and to evade capture show that he was sane, as does an online chat he had with his former girlfriend in which he told her that he felt like killing people but he knew it was "evil."

Two court-appointed psychiatrists found that Holmes was sane at the time of the shooting, Brauchler emphasized. One other doctor came to the opposite conclusion. But that doctor was hired by the defense, and Brauchler portrayed her evaluation and the others done by defense-hired professionals as cursory and flawed. He even accused them of tailoring their methods to achieve the results that the defense attorneys wanted.

Brauchler told the stories of several victims, including Katie and Caleb Medley. Katie was nine months pregnant when she and her husband went to the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises on what would be their last date night before the baby arrived. Caleb was struck in the head by gunfire, and Katie was forced to leave him behind in the theater. Figuring that he would die, she kissed him and promised to take care of their baby.

But Caleb survived and was rushed to the hospital. "She's in one place delivering their son," Brauchler told the jury, "and he's in another place having his brain put back together."

Brauchler seemed confident and his statement sounded well-rehearsed. He chose his words carefully, repeatedly referring to Holmes as "that guy" and saying he turned the theater into a "kill box."

He augmented his arguments with a PowerPoint presentation of hundreds of slides that was broadcast on three flat-screen TVs. He used the slides to show photos of the twelve deceased victims, as well as selfies of an orange-haired Holmes posing with weapons that were taken just hours before the shooting. Some slides included excerpts of innocuous e-mails that Holmes sent to his parents during the months that he was also stockpiling guns and ammunition. Others highlighted statements Holmes made to the psychiatrists who examined him after his arrest, including "I hate everybody."

The last slide was a photo of Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who was six years old when she was killed in the theater. As the jury looked at the smiling blonde kindergarten graduate, Brauchler played an excerpt of a 911 call that one of the moviegoers made from inside the theater. In it, the boom of gunshots can be heard as a dispatcher repeatedly asks for the caller's address.

"The picture is her," Brauchler said. "The sound is him."

In comparison, King's closing statement wasn't as polished or theatrical. He also used slides, but they were often crowded with text and graphs that made them hard to read. He started his presentation with a quote from author Aldous Huxley: Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. Brauchler, he said to the jury, "talks to you as if Mr. Holmes isn't mentally ill at all." But that isn't true, King said.

He pointed to a significant family history of mental illness and explained that schizophrenia is an inherited disease. Holmes began showing symptoms as a young teenager, King said, but he was able to keep the worst of them at bay until the spring of 2012, when he experienced a psychotic break. His illness caused delusions, including the belief that he could increase his self-worth by killing others. It wasn't a delusion Holmes wanted to have, King explained, nor was it something that made him happy.

"People who get schizophrenia don't get to choose the kind of delusions that they have," he said.

After his psychotic break, Holmes felt compelled to act on his delusion, King said. At that time, he was seeing a string of university mental health professionals, who documented what King called Holmes's disintegration from a cooperative, non-violent graduate student to a hostile one gripped by homicidal thoughts. Medication prescribed by one of the doctors may have made things worse, King said.

Eventually, King said, Holmes's need to carry out his mission overtook his desire for treatment. "We can't separate mental illness from him or his crime," the defense attorney told the jurors. "Because the mental illness is the reason — the sole reason — that this crime took place."

King said Holmes hid his plans because he knew they were illegal, but said that doesn't mean Holmes felt they were morally wrong. He criticized the two court-appointed psychiatrists who said Holmes was sane for using the wrong standard in making that determination: It's not whether Holmes knew his actions were legally wrong, King said, but whether he knew they were morally wrong. 

King played several video clips from Holmes's interview with a psychiatrist. In one, Holmes explains that he would sometimes hallucinate "weird shadows," including one in the shape of a person juggling. After Holmes was arrested, King said, he exhibited bizarre behavior that led to him being hospitalized, including falling backward off his jail bed with his arms crossed over his chest and repeating the phrase, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," over and over again for an hour and a half. 

Those behaviors, King said, are evidence that his psychosis is real.

"Do the right thing," King told the jury. "He's not guilty by reason of insanity."

Brauchler ended his statement with the opposite conclusion: "Sane, sane, sane, sane," he said. "Guilty."

Holmes has been charged with 165 crimes. The jury must make a decision on each one.

Monday will be the third anniversary of the July 20, 2012 Aurora theater shooting.
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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