James Holmes, the suspect in a mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater this month, was charged with 24 counts of first-degree murder, a capital crime, and 116 counts of attempted first-degree murder.
Prosecutors from the office of Carol Chambers, the district attorney for Arapahoe County, Colorado, presented the charges today at a 44-minute hearing in state court in Centennial, a Denver suburb. Twelve people died and at least 58 were injured during the attack July 20 during a midnight showing of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.”
First-degree murder is punishable by death or life in prison under Colorado law, and multiple counts can be tied to individual murders. Holmes was also charged with one count of possessing an explosive device and a sentence-enhancing count for unlawful use of a firearm in a crime.
“What they have charged are two different ways as to each victim that they believe a jury could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Karen Steinhauser, an ex-prosecutor in Denver now an adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “It’s not uncommon for prosecutors, at least at the initial filing, to charge all the ways a crime can be committed under the facts they’re aware of.”
Deadliest Since Columbine
The shooting in the Aurora movie theater was the deadliest 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, Texas.
During an initial court appearance July 23, Holmes appeared at times lethargic and at others distracted. Dressed in red prison clothing and with his hair dyed orange, he didn’t speak.
Today he appeared calmer, conferring with his lawyers and responding “yes” when asked if he wanted to waive a 35-day deadline for a preliminary hearing. He didn’t enter a plea. The 116-seat courtroom, half of it reserved for the families of victims and victims’ advocates, was full.
“I got a sense that he was very aware of what was going on,” MaryEllen Hansen, the aunt of injured shooting victim Ashley Moser, said outside the courthouse after the hearing. “He seemed very coherent.”
Hansen said she attended Holmes’s hearing to “see him as who he was” and watch his gestures.
“I felt anger and resentment that anybody could take away someone’s life” for going to the movies, Hansen said of seeing Holmes.
Moser’s daughter, 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was the youngest killed in the shooting, and Moser had a miscarriage, the family announced July 28.
Moser is going to be paralyzed, Hansen said, although there is hope she will have the use of her arms. Yesterday, she underwent an operation to remove a lobe of her lung, Hansen said. The family is waiting on funeral plans for Veronica until Moser is healthy enough to attend.
Don Lader, 27, an Aurora resident who was in the theater on July 20 but not injured, said victims’ families are now in a position of power as the judicial process begins. There was no apprehension about seeing Holmes, said Lader who was dressed in a “Dark Knight Rises” Batman shirt.
“I’ve seen him once before,” Lader said. “I can see him again.”
Request for Secrecy
Tamara Brady, one of Holmes’s attorneys from the state public defender’s office, asked that the case file remain sealed because the defense doesn’t yet know what’s in the police reports. Prosecutors said there are already thousands of pages of such documents.
Prosecutors said they will supply the defense with surveillance video from the University of Colorado mailroom of a package Holmes allegedly sent to a psychiatrist, identified in court filings as Lynne Fenton.
Brady told Judge William Sylvester that she expected Fenton to be subpoenaed.
Sylvester ordered the criminal complaint unsealed and set a hearing for Aug. 9 on efforts to have the rest of the record opened. The judge also scheduled a four-day preliminary hearing to begin on Nov. 13. He will decide on which charges Holmes can be bound over to district court.
Each death is covered by two separate counts, one for premeditated murder, the other for murder “under circumstances evidencing an attitude of universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally.” The attempted murder charges are likewise doubled for each of the injured.
The practice of doubling charges isn’t unique to Colorado, Steinhauser said.
“We see this type of charge in cases where someone shoots into a crowd maybe not intending to kill a specific person but their attitude in doing so shows they’re indifferent to human life,” Steinhauser, who is now in private practice, said in a phone interview.
Narrative of Crime
Holmes bought a ticket for the film, entered the theater and watched for a while before propping open an exit door and leaving, according to police. He went to a white Hyundai parked outside, put on a helmet and ballistic vest, armed himself and returned to the theater, police said.
Police apprehended him behind the building, located 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.
Holmes allegedly referred to himself as “the Joker,” a Batman villain, as he was being arrested. A former graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Denver, he didn’t have a criminal record, police said. Holmes attended high school in San Diego, where his parents and other relatives still live.
He began buying weapons in May at stores in the Aurora region, said Dan Oates, the city’s police chief. Authorities found a surveillance video of Holmes picking up 150 pounds of ammunition at a Federal Express outlet in Colorado, said a law enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
Investigators interviewed a United Parcel Service Inc. driver who said Holmes had 90 packages delivered to his workplace on the University of Colorado medical campus, the official said.
The basic defense tactic when faced with the death penalty is to delay, according to Craig Silverman, a former Denver prosecutor now in private practice as a criminal defense attorney who was at the courthouse today.
“The longer the case goes on, the longer your client stays alive,” he said.
The case is People v. Holmes, 12-cr-01522, 18th Judicial District Court, Colorado (Centennial).