James Holmes, the suspect in a shooting at a Colorado theater that left at least 12 people dead and 58 injured, is scheduled to appear in court for the first time next week, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said.
Holmes, 24, who is being held at the Arapahoe County jail, is scheduled to be arraigned at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, July 23, Oates said yesterday at a press conference. Holmes is suspected of firing into a crowded theater during an early morning showing of the new Batman movie.
The rampage was the deadliest shooting in Colorado since the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999 and the worst mass shooting in the U.S. since November 2009, when 13 people were killed at Fort Hood in Texas. If deemed competent to stand trial and convicted, Holmes may face the death penalty.
Oates said earlier yesterday that the suspect’s apartment was booby trapped with incendiary and chemical devices and tripwires. At the press conference later, Oates said entering the apartment safely was a “very vexing problem” and police hoped to resolve the issue today.
The gunman bought a ticket for “The Dark Knight Rises,” entered the theater in the Denver suburb and watched the movie for a while before leaving, according to a federal official. He went to a white Hyundai parked outside the building, donned a helmet and ballistic vest, armed himself and returned to the theater.
Police apprehended Holmes behind the theater in a shopping mall after the first 911 call at 12:39 a.m. Three weapons were retrieved at the scene. A fourth, a 40-caliber Glock handgun, was found in Holmes’s car. Police aren’t sure if that was used and it’s unclear how many rounds the suspect fired.
Holmes, who had been a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Denver, doesn’t have a criminal record and there is no indication of a terrorism link at this point, officials said. Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation are conducting interviews and following leads outside the state, said Jim Yacone, the agent in charge of the FBI’s Denver division.
Capital cases are rare in Colorado, said Craig Silverman, a former prosecutor in the Denver District Attorney’s Office who’s now in private practice.
To seek the death penalty prosecutors would need to establish one statutory aggravating factor, Silverman said. The case would qualify because it involves multiple victims, some of them children, he said.
Three men are on the state’s death row, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections website. The last person executed in the state was 53-year-old Gary Lee Davis in October 1997.
The case will be handled by the office of District Attorney Carol Chambers. Chambers sought the death penalty against six defendants in four cases during a time when only one other capital case had been filed in the state, according to a 2010 profile by the Denver Post newspaper.
Holmes attended high school in San Diego, where his parents and other relatives still live, according to the U-T San Diego newspaper.
If the reported facts are accurate, the “evidence of premeditation would be overwhelming” against Holmes, said Sam Kamin, a law professor at Denver University. In Colorado, premeditation would be required to charge Holmes with multiple counts of first-degree murder, Kamin said in yesterday in a phone interview.
The multiple weapons found, body armor and booby-trapping, “all of this shows it was more than a spur of the moment killing or series of killings,” Kamin said.
In Colorado, an “aggravating factor” that may lead to a suspect facing the death penalty is if more than one person is killed in the same incident, Kamin said. In the theater-shooting case, another aggravating factor “is that the killings were heinous and cruel,” Kamin said.
Holmes may present an insanity defense, requiring a determination that he suffers from a mental disease or defect rendering him unfit to stand trial, Kamin said.
Alternatively, Holmes’s lawyers will search his personal history looking for “mitigating factors,” or “what in his background or character mitigates the case in aggravation,” Kamin said. Under such circumstances, the defendant would admit guilt and would claim mitigating factors “not to spare him of conviction but to save his life,” Kamin said.
Relying on that defense, the defendant’s lawyers would immediately search for any history of abuse, neglect, drug use or post-traumatic stress, Kamin said.
Oates, the Aurora police chief, said Holmes had a lawyer, without identifying the attorney.
The rampage is among the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. in the past 15 years.
The toll approaches the 15 killed in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Aurora. The deadliest such incident in the U.S. since then was the Virginia Tech rampage of April 2007 in Blacksburg, Virginia, in which Seung-Hui Cho took 33 lives, including his own.
Prosecuting such crimes raises the inevitable question of the defendant’s sanity, according to Richard Kornfeld, who represented the family of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold. Any defense of Holmes would have to initially determine his mental state, Kornfeld, of Recht Kornfeld PC in Denver, said in a phone interview.
“Most people think an insanity defense is a hyper-technical cop-out, as if it existed in the law just to get around things,” Kornfeld said. “The real analysis from the lawyer’s perspective is: Can this person assist you in trying to help them.”
In March 2009, 13 people died when Jiverly Wong, an unemployed immigrant from Vietnam, opened fire on a civic center in Binghamton, New York. He killed himself. That same month, Michael McLendon fatally shot 10 relatives and bystanders in what Alabama authorities called the single deadliest crime in the state’s history. He also committed suicide.
Later that year, Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army major, allegedly shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas. Hasan, who survived and is awaiting trial, had been communicating by e-mail with Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical cleric who was part of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike last year.
Six people died in January 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner allegedly went on a rampage in Tucson, Arizona, at a community meeting organized by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a head wound sustained in the incident. Loughner has pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder.
Most recently, One Goh was charged with multiple counts of murder for the lethal shooting of seven people at a college in Oakland, California, in April.
Outside the U.S., 77 people died a year ago this week in Norway in twin attacks by Anders Behring Breivik.
Motivations behind the attacks can vary, when they are discernible at all.
The Columbine shooters, Klebold and Eric Harris, who committed suicide after the assault, were motivated by thoughts of glorious suicide, revolution and vengeance for petty slights, according to Dave Cullen’s book “Columbine.” Harris bragged in his journal about “topping” Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma, Cullen said.
Breivik, who’s fighting to be found sane, has said the murders were “gruesome but necessary” to fight multiculturalism and the spread of Islam. Most of his victims, some as young as 14, were attending a Labor Party youth camp.
Wong, who allegedly fired 99 rounds at the upstate New York civic center where he was studying English, sent a letter to a local television station accusing police of harassing him for two decades.
Loughner, the former college student accused of attacking the Giffords gathering in Arizona, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He has been undergoing psychiatric treatment and forced medication to render him competent to stand trial.
McLendon, the Alabama shooter, left behind a letter describing “ill feelings” toward his family. A self-proclaimed survivalist, he carried two assault rifles, a shotgun and a handgun and fired at least 125 rounds during his rampage. He shot his mother first, then her four dogs, before setting them on fire.
The Virginia Tech shooter, Cho, in a videotaped manifesto, cited grudges against the world and said he was inspired by past U.S. school shootings, of which perhaps the most famous was Columbine.