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Theater-Shooting Suspect Gets Date for Plea Ruling

James Holmes will learn May 31 whether he can plead insanity to charges of murdering 12 people in a shooting rampage at a Colorado movie theater, a judge said.

State court Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. in Centennial, Colorado, said today at a hearing that he will hand down his decision on that date. He will rule on defense motions regarding the insanity plea and the death penalty by May 28.

The 45-minute hearing today was to determine whether Holmes’s lawyers presented “good cause” to change his not guilty plea, which a judge entered for him in March, to not guilty by reason of insanity.

Samour said there was little legal authority on what constitutes “good cause” to change a plea after arraignment. New evidence is one factor, he said, and the decision must be weighed “liberally and in favor of the accused.”

Defense attorney Daniel King told the judge that he had good cause because his team “hit the ground running” on the mental-health issue when they first received the case. King said they have an “opinion by qualified professionals” and, without specifying a diagnosis, said Holmes wasn’t sane at the time of the shooting.

New Information

Arapahoe County Senior Deputy District Attorney Jacob Edson told the judge he wanted to know exactly when the defense had received new information after the March 12 arraignment. The defense must show something happened in the intervening time in order to change the plea, he said.

Holmes’s “mental illness hasn’t changed in the past 60 days” and no mental health expert would give an opinion until they were provided with all the information, King responded.

“It’s remarkable we’ve made the progress we have,” in obtaining a diagnosis, King said.

The judge said that “good cause has been established,” adding that he may not allow the insanity plea even with his determination.

Edson told the court that 19 victims or their representatives object to a change in plea to insanity and six had no objection.

Prosecutors in March rejected an offer from Holmes to plead guilty and spend his life in prison without any chance of parole in exchange for sparing him from the death penalty.

Death Penalty

The death penalty sought by prosecutors along with Samour’s expected acceptance of the insanity plea will “stop the clock” on the case and likely delay a trial scheduled for February 2014 while Holmes undergoes psychological testing, Karen Steinhauser, a former Denver prosecutor now in private practice, said in phone interview.

“For many victims and the public, a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity may seem like it’s just a delay tactic and they may believe there’s no way he was insane at the time,” Steinhauser said.

Of utmost importance is that the trial is “done one time and one time only,” she said. “If the court makes a mistake just to try to move things quicker, it can result in the whole case being reversed years down the road.”

Holmes, who studied neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Denver, is charged with 166 counts, including murder and attempted murder. In addition to the 12 people killed, 70 were injured in the July 20 shooting spree at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Cinemark Holdings Inc.’s Century Aurora 16 theater in the Denver suburb.

The case is People v. Holmes, 12-cr-01522, 18th Judicial District Court, Colorado (Centennial).

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